IF YOU TRY TO REASON your way through the art of Graciela Iturbide, you will miss the point. Look upon her soulful portrait of a young Zapotec Indian dressed in her finest or at one of her unearthly snapshots of circling birds, and you’ll understand: This photographer’s work is not thought. It is felt.
Iturbide discovered the camera almost by accident. As a film student at the National University of Mexico in the late sixties, she enrolled in a course with the groundbreaking photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and soon became his apprentice. Photography was hardly a prestigious line of work in Mexico then, but Iturbide embraced it with instinctual ease and, fascinated by the indigenous traditions and cultural identities of her country, soon set out on her own to capture the world around her. It was her vision of Mexico’s peoples and places (her photo essay on the Seri Indians in the Sonora Desert, her striking series on the Zapotec women in Juchitán) that first won her both national and international attention.
Mexico has no shortage of photography luminaries—Mariana Yampolsky, Nacho López, Hector García—but it is Iturbide, with her insight and openness to the unknown, who best captures her country’s essence. “Graciela is the very heart and soul of photography in Mexico,” says Bill Wittliff, who, with wife Sally, founded the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography, at Texas State University, in San Marcos. Such is her reputation that over the past ten years, his gallery has been busy acquiring the largest collection of her photographs in the world.
This month Iturbide comes into focus again, with the publication of Eyes to Fly With: Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs (University of Texas Press), an unprecedented survey of her work selected from this two-hundred-plus-piece treasury. The book is Iturbide at her most expressive, both artistically—whimsical self-portraits, iconic images from her travels, symbolic explorations of death—and personally, with a rare and revelatory interview. Here, in an excerpt of nine photographs, the 64-year-old opens up once more, speaking from her home in Mexico City about capturing specific moments and the feeling behind them. “The photographer constructs his own reality according to his own awareness or his own emotions,” she has said, and her images, like good poetry, are infinitely suggestive. To relate to them best, you must allow yourself to live in those very instants her shutter clicked. KATHARYN RODEMANN
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Sonora Desert, Mexico, 1979
ANGEL W OMAN
“I spent about a month and a half living in the Sonora Desert, in northern Mexico, with the Seri Indians,” Iturbide says. “This was one time they took me to see some ancient cave paintings. The Seris had gone from being a nomadic people to suddenly adopting this strong sense of capitalism, because they’re on the border with Arizona. That’s why the woman has the jam box; they made crafts for Americans in exchange for modern things. Note how her hair is caught on the rocks. I don’t actually remember taking this photograph, but that’s why I like it—it was a surprise gift to me from the Seris.”
Oaxaca, Mexico, 1974
TONALA, T EHUANTEPEC
“In Zapotec culture, the women are strong, political, happy women. They sing, they tell dirty jokes. They carry the economy. We would call it a matriarchy, though they