THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE, Octavio Paz’s book-length essay on Mexican identity, has cast a long shadow on the country’s cultural and intellectual life. First published in 1950, this treatise identifies nine major themes—masks, miscegenation, cultural suppression, and the death wish, among others—which, according to Paz, shaped the unique historical position of modern Mexico and, perhaps more important, explained its historical backwardness. For decades these were the terms on which Mexican social issues were evaluated, and they remain staple references of journalistic and academic writing on the subject. The book’s staying power owes partly to Paz’s rhetorical brilliance. Even so, and valid criticism notwithstanding, it’s clear that he also put his finger on something real.
From a distance, it might seem that the photographer Graciela Iturbide has consciously and diligently worked through Paz’s ideas. In her six-decade career, she has chronicled Mexican fiestas, including the Day of the Dead, which she returns to year after year; made a series of mysterious portraits of mask-wearing Mexicans, both Indigenous and mestizo; shot photographs at funerals and cemeteries with unsettling regularity; and attentively documented traces of the country’s pre-Columbian past.
Several commentators have made the connection. “The presence of death in the work of Graciela Iturbide is only one of the forms in which her work is profoundly linked to Mexico,” poet Verónica Volkow wrote in 1985. “[I]n her oeuvre is also the atmosphere of solitude that exists in Mexico.”1 “One of the major concerns in the work of Graciela Iturbide is to articulate the ways in which a vocable such as ‘Mexico’ is meaningful only when understood as an intricate combination of histories and practices,” the critic Roberto Tejada added a decade later.2 Iturbide has been described as a visual anthropologist, someone who analyzes the country’s social structures with her camera.3 On occasion, she has admitted to channeling or depicting “Mexican tempo,” a regional attitude toward history and time.4
Yet the abiding impression left by “Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico,” an absorbing show that was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this spring, is of an artist stubbornly committed to her inner vision. Her pictures are inquisitive, surprising, teasing, and self-reflexive. Most strikingly, they are charged with a certain mysticism, as if the sites of social and political fracture she visits were stops on a personal pilgrimage. Moving through the MFA’s tightly organized galleries, visitors could feel themselves come closer and closer to a fugitive spirit. “Perhaps I looked for surprise in ordinary things that I could have found anywhere in the world,” curator Kristen Gresh quotes her saying. “The unconscious obsession that we photographers have is that wherever we go we want to find a theme that we carry inside ourselves.”5
BORN IN MEXICO CITY in 1942, the oldest of thirteen children, Graciela Iturbide grew up at a Catholic boarding school. She married early (at twenty), had kids fast (three in five years) and entered her late twenties all set for the long haul as a “petty-bourgeois housewife” (her own words).6 Mercifully, life had other plans. At twenty-seven, in 1969, something compelled Iturbide to enroll in the cinematography program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There she made the acquaintance of the great modernist photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Convinced by him to switch departments, she served as his assistant for years, a wonderful job that involved travels through the Mexican countryside—a kind of local study abroad experience—and endless discussions of painting, music, literature, and all the other arts. By the early ’70s, Iturbide, now divorced, was supporting herself with commercial assignments, while also making personal work on the side.
Her early pictures are alert and uncluttered records of street encounters. A strikingly dressed person, or a suggestive billboard, or—better still—some combination of the two catches her fancy, and she trains her camera on the subject. She makes portraits of “pachucos” (snazzy aspirant zoot-suiters), drag queens, street urchins, sponge vendors, a Knight of Columbus in full regalia—anyone from outside her petty-bourgeois world. She’s given to shyly romanticizing these others, usually in Biblical terms, as in Immaculate Girl (1984), a touching portrait of a mestiza, religious figurine in hand, standing against a mural of an oddly innocent vampire (imagine an angel with two sharp teeth). The three figures—girl, figurine, vampire—here form a continuum of moral purity, a visual pun self-consciously put to fantastic use.
In 1978, with a commission from the National Indigenous Institute, Iturbide lived for an extended period among the Seris, a tiny and relatively well-off Indigenous fishing community based in northwest Mexico, along the Sonoran coast. In this series the two poles of her imagination come into focus. Confronted by overwhelming “cultural syncretism”—the adaptation of American products and styles into an older way of life—Iturbide made calm and unassuming portraits that linger on all that seems familiar (the clothes, the guns, the bicycles) about her sitters. The protagonist of the close-up titled Manuel (1979) is a local youth decked out in a flamboyant suit and pair of aviators, a look directly inspired by the style of a well-known cumbia singer, Rigo Tovar.
Yet Iturbide is unwilling to suppress an element of awe for Seri society, which, despite a modernizing economy, remained meaningfully outside the middle-class fold. She was most struck by how people had not been alienated from their labor; fishing, the principal local occupation, was still something of a community practice. Iturbide tries to convey the novelty of this in Seri Women (1979), a majestic tableau in which three fisherwomen—two adults and a tiny girl—their backs to us, face the ocean. Knowledge is being passed down from one generation to the next, and work has taken on a ritual quality.
These two tendencies—to find common ground and register a kind of transcendent difference—are brilliantly united in her iconic photo Angel Woman (1979). A Seri woman treads a hillside path, carrying (of all things) a boombox. She seems all alone in the unforgiving desert, like a spirit of the landscape, as elbows raised, she gazes away from us at the horizon.
In all, Iturbide lived for two months with the Seris. Her next project would take ten years. In 1979 she was invited by Francisco Toledo, a Zapotec painter and intellectual, to work in his hometown of Juchitán, Oaxaca, where he had established a cultural center. Iturbide returned frequently over the years, observing public meetings and festivals, sitting in on domestic rituals, and getting to know the community’s famously independent women, sometimes quite intimately. As with Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies,” the Czech photographer’s two-decade-long project on Europe’s Roma communities, Iturbide’s series has a playfulness, ruggedness, breadth, and overwhelming sense of mystery, as if each photo hides as much as it reveals. Published in book form in 1989, Juchitán de las mujeres is an inspiring model of third-world ethnography, a work as open-hearted as it is self-conscious.7 There is a long tradition of Mexican artists and writers—take a bow, Frida Kahlo; take two, Octavio Paz—presenting Indigenous culture as both necessary and marginal to national identity. While it’s not her place to tip the scales the other way, Iturbide firmly resists the usual equation.
Animals figure prominently in the Juchitán pictures, where they mediate between tenderness and violence, life and the afterlife, realism and myth. In Cleaning Chickens (1985), for example, women standing in a semicircle, cropped from the waist up, clutch freshly plucked fowls like bridesmaids holding flowers. Even more pungently, the legendary portrait Our Lady of the Iguanas (1979) shows an iguana vendor whose live reptiles sit snugly on her head.8 “A peasant can become fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork,” John Berger reminds us in his searing essay “Why Look at Animals?” “What is significant and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and not by a but.”9
Iturbide would revisit this theme a final time in 1992, when she chronicled the annual goat slaughter, a Catholic ritual inherited from the Spanish conquest, that the Mixtec herding community of Oaxaca has observed for centuries. In these hushed, stark, incomparable photos, she depicts violence without a shade of repugnance, either moral or physical, simply drawing attention to the textures of flesh. Happiness, The Slaughter (1992) shows a young girl, her face a rictus of joy, sitting on the floor, her hands on a skinned goat, as if lazily taking its absent pulse. When the French newspaper Liberation asked Iturbide to select a photograph that symbolizes happiness, this is the one she sent in.
“MORE THAN IN TIME,” Iturbide has said, “I am interested in the artistic form of the symbol.”10 The Catholic ceremonies she witnessed at boarding school left an indelible mark on her consciousness; all her career she has been magnetically drawn to rituals and festivals, any public display of religious or cultural belief. The “Fiestas” section of the MFA exhibition brought together photographs from these expeditions, including studies of La Danza de los Jardineros, an old Oaxacan fertility celebration, and pictures from multiple visits to Chalma, in the state of Mexico, one of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites. In these works, Iturbide’s particular magic is to draw us into the world of belief, with utter sincerity, and leave us stranded there, in a complicated doubt. Chalmita (1982) is a portrait of a young girl in an angel costume—white frock, glitter-decorated cardboard wings—looking back at the camera with a haunting trepidation. She really seems to have witnessed the supernatural, and the vision has left her rattled.
Iturbide consistently photographs funerals and cemeteries, making delicate and doom-laden images, the best of them charged with a kind of metaphysical doubt. In Cemetery (1988), a woman is seen attending to the most modest funeral pyre—just bricks, stalks, and firewood—as a flock of tiny birds covers the sky, blissfully indifferent to the story ending below. In contrast, Iturbide has also shot more witty and playful photos on the subject of mortality. Charmed by the inventiveness and even the pomp with which her compatriots publicly confront mortality, especially at Day of the Dead processions, she has avidly recorded these occasions.
In a sense, death has always been the hidden subject of her art. In 1970, at the outset of her career, Iturbide lost her youngest daughter. In the aftermath, she began obsessively photographing angelitos, dead infants laid out in white coffins. During one funeral procession, she came upon an adult cadaver left unattended on a cemetery path, its face and torso plucked clean of flesh. “There were many birds in the sky,” she recounts, in a video interview screened at the exhibition. “The ones that had been pecking on the man.” It was a moment of catharsis, when she decided to stop photographing angelitos. “I felt that Death was saying to me, ‘Enough!’”
Ever since, birds have been her constant companions. She has shot them from near and afar, alone and in flocks, dead and alive, against vast skies and in cramped rooms. Built from the simplest elements—one or more birds, perhaps a tree or telephone pole, a patch of sky—these images possess a Fellini-esque mixture of lightness and weight and they are radiant with an evasive beauty. In Bird (1985), made in Actopan, Hidalgo, a raven is spied from inside a cavernous interior space, just as it passes by a doorlike opening, against a blinding sky. I take that to be a self-portrait.