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

(Top of the page)
Sonora Desert, Mexico, 1979

Mujer Angel

“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.”

(Above left)
Oaxaca, Mexico, 1974
Tonala, Tehuantepec

“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 don’t think of it that way. When I visited Tonalá, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the town was celebrating a political leader named Vallejo who had just been released from prison. He was a leader of the railway workers. Zapotec women always buy gold as savings, and they wear it when they dress up. This girl—she was maybe fourteen or fifteen—had dressed for the festivities by putting on all her gold.”

(Above right)
India, 1998
Sin Titulo

“I’ve been to India three times now, first with my family and later to work with the photographers Sebastiaõ Salgado and Raghu Rai on a book titled India, México: vientos paralelos [India, Mexico: Parallel Winds], about visual similarities between the two countries. This military jacket drying on a tree in Khajuraho, together with the bird, caught my eye. In India I had begun to change my photographic language and started doing more-symbolic things—landscapes, objects. There comes a time when you have to see what happens with new languages.”

(Above left)
India, 1998
Perros Perdidos

“This was in the north of India, on the trip I took with my family. My son Mauricio first noticed the dogs and pointed them out. Also the birds. In India there are lots of birds, lots of crows. So I took a series of photos, but there was only this one where the dogs came out in order. They were sort of wild. I actually called this one Lost Dogs because I kept losing the negatives. They must have disappeared two or three times.”

(Above right)
Panama City, Panama, 1974
Barrio El Chorrillo

“During the eighties I worked on a photo essay on the people of Panama. Much of my work was with the country’s leader at the time, General Omar Torrijos, who was the one who rescued the Panama Canal [from the U.S.]. He and I were close back then. These children are from a poor neighborhood, and their hands are raised because that’s what they do there when you take a picture—no other reason. They had been following me around and really wanted to be photographed.”

(Above left)
Oaxaca, Mexico, 1997
Francisco Toledo, Pintor

“Francisco is a famous painter and a good friend of mine. We often work together, and we play around with taking photographs. He paints bats a lot, so when I found this desiccated bat, I asked if I could take his picture with it. Francisco has opened a bunch of museums and libraries for the people of Oaxaca; in the photo he is crouching in the window of a little house that’s in a pretty public park he created. Francisco is originally from the town of Juchitán, and it was he who invited me [back in the seventies] to photograph the Zapotec culture for a book, now titled Juchitán de las mujeres [The Women of Juchitán].”

(Above right)
Juchitán, Mexico, 1979
Nuestra Señora De Las Iguanas

“When I first started photographing in Juchitán, I would go to market with the women, who were so strong and kind. This woman arrived with iguanas on her head—they were alive, with their mouths sewn shut so they wouldn’t bite—and I asked her right then and there if I could take her picture. She had taken the iguanas off, but she agreed and put them back on her head. I have a whole contact sheet with images of this; only in one photo did the iguanas cooperate. What I like about the photo is that the people in Juchitán appropriated the image. I called it Our Lady of the Iguanas, but the people of Juchitán named it ‘The Juchitecan Medusa.’ They put posters of it all over town. I loved that.”

(Above left)
Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, 1978
Pajaros I

“I call this one ‘Birds of Death’ because I took it after I came across a dead man in a cemetery. I had been photographing a family carrying their dead child to this cemetery. In Mexico we call these children angelitos because they are dressed as little angels. As we were going into the cemetery, the father carrying the child turned to look at me, because a body—half man, half skeleton—was lying up ahead. Then the sky filled with birds. I think they must have been eating the dead man. It was a strange contrast, like a nightmare. It was then I began a series on birds—many of my bird photos come from that moment.”

(Above right)
Coyoacán, Mexico, 1993

“I take self-portraits every so often, but in a very unconscious sort of way. I don’t give it thought; it’s more like I suddenly feel the need for a self-portrait. I have several with birds. One of them, ¿Ojos para volar? (Eyes to Fly With?), is where the name for this book comes from. I don’t know how the bird idea came about, it just did. It was during a time when I was a bit depressed, and I guess it was the idea that, like birds, I had eyes with which to photograph and fly. I love birds. They’re a symbol of both solitude and freedom.”