An eye for un­for­get­table im­agery

Gra­ciela Itur­bide talks about go­ing vi­ral, L.A. cho­los, shoot­ing Frida Kahlo’s bath­room.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - carolina.mi­randa @la­

MEX­ICO CITY — Count­less pho­tog­ra­phers hope to pro­duce a sin­gle in­deli­ble im­age over their ca­reers, some­thing so un­for­get­table that it is seared onto the col­lec­tive un­con­scious. Mex­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Gra­ciela Itur­bide has made not one but sev­eral of these im­ages.

There’s the pho­to­graph of a Zapotec woman in a Mex­i­can mar­ket, her head draped in a crown of igua­nas strik­ing a pose. There is the spec­tral fig­ure of a Seri woman, clad in a long dress, who floats through the desert clutch­ing only a boom box. And there is the woman, with the seen-it-all stare, hav­ing a drink and a smoke in a Mex­ico City bar — her mor­tal­ity, and ours, writ large in a mu­ral of a skull that looms large over her


There are others who are rec­og­niz­able too: The Zapotec trans­gen­der woman fram­ing her strik­ing fea­tures with a mir­ror. A maskwear­ing rev­eler stand­ing in the mid­dle of a dry field, the party over, out of time.

Itur­bide’s im­ages are part of mu­seum col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing the Getty and the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

Now 75, Itur­bide shows no signs of slow­ing down. The Mex­ico City-based pho­tog­ra­pher re­cently pub­lished the book “Aván­daro,” which gath­ers some of her ear­li­est im­ages — from a 1971 rock fest in Mex­ico. And she has spent time pho­tograph­ing refugees in Mex­ico and Colom­bia, many dis­placed by drug and other vi­o­lence, as part of a project spon­sored by the U.N. Refugee Agency. (These were shown at the An­nen­berg Space for Pho­tog­ra­phy last year.)

“That project was re­ally hard,” she says. “It was like touch­ing the mis­ery of man. It was very in­tense for me.”

This fall, Itur­bide and her work will be highly vis­i­ble around South­ern Cal­i­for­nia when the Pa­cific Stan­dard Time: Los An­ge­les/Latin Amer­ica series kick off. Her work will ap­pear in two sep­a­rate shows for PST: LA/LA, as the series is known.

The Ham­mer Mu­seum will in­clude her work in “Rad­i­cal Women: Latin Amer­i­can Art, 1965-1980.” This will con­sist of im­ages she took in the south­ern Mex­ico vil­lage of Ju­chitán in the 1970s and ’80s chron­i­cling life in the ma­tri­ar­chal indige­nous set­tle­ment. It’s a series that re­mains her fa­vorite, she says, “be­cause of the close­ness I have with the peo­ple of Ju­chitán.”

The Ruth Chan­dler Wil­liamson Gallery at Scripps Col­lege will present works from through­out Itur­bide’s ca­reer as part of the show “Revo­lu­tion & Rit­ual” which will also fea­ture pho­tog­ra­phy by Sara Cas­tre­jón and Ta­tiana Parcero.

Itur­bide will also work with artist James hd Brown, the founder of Oax­aca’s Carpe Diem Press, to cre­ate a spe­cial book of her work tied to the PST: LA/LA show “James hd Brown: Life and Work in Mex­ico” at USC’s Fisher Mu­seum.

And since all of that isn’t quite enough, she will also be the sub­ject of “Pho­to­graphic: The Life of Gra­ciela Itur­bide,” a new graphic bi­og­ra­phy by Is­abel Quin­tero and Zeke Peña to be re­leased by Getty Publi­ca­tions in Septem­ber.

Itur­bide has long had a knack for cap­tur­ing the many lay­ers of Mex­i­can iden­tity — the indige­nous draped in the Catholic and the mod­ern. The artist, critic Marta Dahó writes in the Scripps ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, is part of a gen­er­a­tion of pho­tog­ra­phers who re­al­ized the “com­plex task of vi­su­al­iz­ing the sur­vival of [indige­nous] cul­tural be­liefs.”

Itur­bide is gra­cious and funny, in­hab­it­ing a cozy house in the Mex­ico City district of Coyoacán stuffed to the gills with books and ar­ti­facts ac­cu­mu­lated over a life­time of travel. Fol­low­ing at her heels is a French bull­dog named Horr, short for “Hor­ri­ble.”

In this edited con­ver­sa­tion, she dis­cusses some of the high points of her ca­reer, why she was com­pelled to do a series on the cho­los of L.A.’s Eastside, and how a youth­ful stint in a nun­nery shaped all the im­agery she has pro­duced since.

In 1979, you snapped an im­age of a Zapotec iguana ven­dor in Ju­chitán. That pic­ture of Sobeida Díaz, known as “Our Lady of the Igua­nas,” is now iconic. What’s it like to have some­thing go vi­ral?

It’s very strange, no? That im­age is no longer mine. In Ju­chitán, there is now a sculp­ture of her based on that photo. It has ap­peared as graf­fiti. There are mu­rals. In Ju­chitán, she is like a saint. “Our Lady of the Igua­nas” is part of daily life. I’m now mak­ing a tomb for her. She passed away. I was in Ju­chitán re­cently and some­body said, “How is it pos­si­ble? She is so fa­mous, and look at her tomb.” So I hired an ar­chi­tect to make a tomb for her. And Fran­cisco Toledo, the painter, he is go­ing to cre­ate some igua­nas to place on there. I imag­ine it will turn into a kind of shrine. Every­body adores her.

You travel through­out Mex­ico for your work. How have you seen the coun­try — and com­mu­ni­ties such as Ju­chitán — evolve over your ca­reer?

Hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble. I won’t go to cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties be­cause of the narco. For ex­am­ple, in Ju­chitán, all the women used to wear their gold jewelry. Now they wear only cos­tume jewelry, be­cause peo­ple will yank it. I was there re­cently with some young peo­ple who in­vited me, so I felt pro­tected, but I could still see what was go­ing on around.

Ju­chitán has his­tor­i­cally been a Zapotec ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. Have these tra­di­tions with­ered away in the face of the narco pres­ence?

The tra­di­tions con­tinue. The women are the ones who man­age the econ­omy. They are the ones who op­er­ate the mar­ket. Men can­not en­ter the mar­ket — only muxes, who are gay men, and they work with the women. It’s very ac­cepted. They call them muxes in the Zapotec lan­guage. And they con­tinue the tra­di­tions: the wed­dings, the quinceañeras, etc. — ex­cept now they can’t wear their gold.

About a decade ago, you pho­tographed a bath­room in painter Frida Kahlo’s Mex­ico City house that had re­mained shut­tered for 50 years upon the or­ders of Diego Rivera. What was that ex­pe­ri­ence like?

Very in­tense. The bath­room had been shut­tered on Diego’s or­der, surely be­cause it con­tained all of her things. In­deed, there were let­ters and other per­sonal ob­jects. It was very in­ter­est­ing. Like en­ter­ing a pro­hib­ited space, frozen in time — with some ter­ri­ble smells. Imag­ine a bath­room that’s been closed off for 50 years.

I wasn’t a Frida-ma­niac, nor am I now a Frida-ma­niac. Nowa­days she is prac­ti­cally “St. Frida.” But there I learned that she was a mar­velous woman who con­tended with pain. But she kept paint­ing. Paint­ing was her ther­apy. I feel like I got to know her bet­ter.

You did a series on Los An­ge­les in the 1980s, doc­u­ment­ing cho­los. What in­trigued you about them?

I was in­ter­ested in cho­los be­cause they are of Mex­i­can ori­gin. I was in­ter­ested in the ways in which they had been marginal­ized. I lived there and pho­tographed them. Many had been in jail, then they’d get out of jail and back into gangs. They would get to­gether in the park at night to do drugs, and every­one would re­spect each other in a kind of cold war. But it was still very dan­ger­ous. You’d be tak­ing a pic­ture and then you’d hear [makes the sound of a gun be­ing cocked]. It was very heavy.

For me, it was very in­ter­est­ing, be­cause they have a nos­tal­gia about Mex­ico that isn’t al­ways based in fact. A group of them told me, “We want you to pho­to­graph us by the mu­ral of the mari­achis.” And it was a mu­ral of Mex­ico’s his­tor­i­cal he­roes: [19th cen­tury Pres­i­dent] Benito Juarez, [revo­lu­tion­ary] Pan­cho Villa. They can be re­ally mis­taken about Mex­ico, but they still have a pro­found nos­tal­gia for it.

I was also very in­ter­ested in the in­flu­ence the cho­los had. After­wards, I went to pho­to­graph cho­los in Ti­juana. The cho­los there would be look­ing at mag­a­zines that showed cho­los in East L.A., so it was in­ter­est­ing to see the paths it took.

What are you pho­tograph­ing now?

I’m oc­cu­pied by things like rocks — rocks, wa­ter, air. These el­e­men­tal things. But I never know, be­cause some­thing else may arise out of it. I also con­tinue to work a lot in botan­i­cal gar­dens, es­pe­cially in which the plants are heal­ing from some sort of in­jury.

What in­ter­ests you about in­jured plants?

I don’t know. Be­cause I’m mor­bid? [Laughs.] I like to see them with ban­dages and IVs, gar­dens that are un­der­go­ing some sort of ther­apy. When the gar­den has healed, they al­ways want me to pho­to­graph it. But I say, “No, that isn’t my gar­den!”

You be­gan by study­ing cin­ema. How did you end up a pho­tog­ra­pher?

I wanted to study art, phi­los­o­phy and let­ters, but my fam­ily was very con­ser­va­tive. They said, “How? No!” But I heard that there was a film school and I just went and en­rolled. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I had the good for­tune to meet [Mod­ernist pho­tog­ra­pher] Manuel Ál­varez Bravo, who taught there, and I be­came his as­sis­tant.

What was your fam­ily’s re­ac­tion when you took off to study film?

I was the el­dest of 13. I got mar­ried very young — at 19 — and then I got di­vorced. I come from a very con­ser­va­tive fam­ily. They are bish­ops and arch­bish­ops, and you can imag­ine what I am to them: the crazy one who stud­ies film and gets di­vorced. Now they ac­cept me, but in the be­gin­ning, my par­ents, what can I tell you?, we didn’t re­ally speak.

I got di­vorced, and I was very happy. My chil­dren are my ac­com­plices. I have two: Manuel [Rocha Itur­bide], who is a com­poser, and Mauricio [Rocha Itur­bide], who is an ar­chi­tect.

How did those ex­pe­ri­ences shape your work?

In a lot of my work, you see the para­pher­na­lia of the Catholic Church: an­gels, crosses, all of the things I lived as a girl. I was sent to a con­vent of the nuns of the Sa­cred Heart. I had boyfriends, so my par­ents sent me far away. The school was in San Luis Po­tosí. I was there for three years — as a novice. I had to live there, and you couldn’t speak. I’m an athe­ist now, but those in­flu­ences are still there.

They had a huge li­brary. I learned about Spain’s Siglo de Oro [a lit­er­ary Re­nais­sance dur­ing the 16th and 17th cen­turies]. That was in high school. I left and then I stud­ied for about a year. Then I got mar­ried — and then later di­vorced from the father of my chil­dren.

Pho­tog­ra­phy was my sal­va­tion.

Is it still? Yes! Yes, it is.

Ruth Chan­dler Wil­liamson Gallery By Carolina A. Mi­randa

“CUIDAD DE MEX­ICO,” 1969, is among the im­ages made by Mex­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Gra­ciela Itur­bide.

Pho­to­graphs from Ruth Chan­dler Wil­liamson Gallery

IN GRA­CIELA ITUR­BIDE’S “Mu­jer an­gel, De­sierto de Sonora, Mex­ico,” 1979, (An­gel Woman, Sonora Desert, Mex­ico), a woman ap­pears to float through the desert.

“NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LAS IGUA­NAS,” Ju­chitán, Oax­aca, 1979, Itur­bide’s im­age of an iguana ven­dor, has popped up in paint­ings, draw­ings and even tat­toos.

“AUTORRETRATO CON SERPIENTES,” is a self-por­trait with snakes, taken in 2006.

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