Photography, says Graciela Iturbide, helps her to understand what she sees, what she lives for and what she feels: “It’s a good excuse to get to know the world and its cultures.” The reverse also applies to the viewers of her works . For them, the photographs taken by the now 80-year-old photographer are a great opportunity to once again question their own understanding of the world.
So far, the only opportunity to do so in Germany has been at the small photography forum in Frankfurt. In Berlin: none. Although institutions such as the Tate Modern or the Center Pompidou have long exhibited Iturbide’s work as a crucial contribution to Mexico’s visual culture and identity. Now it’s Paris again: the Fondation Cartier is showing the more than 200-picture retrospective “Heliotropo 37”, the title of which is derived from the address of their studio in Mexico City.
Visitors are received in the light hall on the ground floor with large formats of Iturbide’s late work that have rarely been shown before. As always, these are black and white prints. The photographer presents the simple still lifes at the height of her art, inseparably combining documentation and poetic perception of everyday life.
In this late work, people disappear more and more. Instead, her attention is drawn to materials and textures. Iturbide travels a lot during this time, visiting India, Pakistan, Japan, Italy and the USA. And since she is not very familiar with the life and culture of these countries, she does not find her pictures in an attempt to track people down through social documentary, but in the “surprise of the ordinary”, as she says, which she finds everywhere on the world finds.
Animals also play a prominent role in his late work. “Caballito para Gerzso, Aldea Acadia, Lafayette, Louisiana, Estados Unidos 1997”: A horse in the lower left corner and ten power cables, which, as if coming out of nowhere, run as dark lines from the right across the sky to the lower left to the horse , make for a perfect picture – not least of the creature’s precarious position in a world driven by monstrous forces.
Fascinating are the shots of cacti that are so powerful that they have to be supported. Heavily bandaged, wrapped in thick layers of newspaper and tied to heavy hemp ropes on wooden slats, the capricious plant architecture and sculptures tell of natural frailty and human effort. The recordings were made in the botanical garden of Oaxaca de Juárez, which opened in 1993 and primarily collects and documents the plants of the region.
Graciela Iturbide first photographed the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 1979 at the invitation of Francisco Toledo, a well-known painter of Zapotec descent. The recordings she made in Juchitán established her career. In the basement of the Fondation, astonishing portraits of happy, physically powerful women with obviously unshakable self-confidence as well as shots of well-dressed men in women’s clothes. The matriarchal urban society is familiar with the practice of assuming changing gender roles, including the possibility of a third gender.
This is where Graciela Iturbide took her most famous photograph. At the market, she observed a woman carrying the iguanas she wanted to sell nestled in her hair on her head. Iturbide asked the woman for a photo, and the icon “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas” was created. The photo no longer belongs to her, says the photographer, it has become so immensely popular in Mexico that it can still be found on posters and postcards today; it has long since gone viral on social media and in Juchitán it adorns the market square as a bronze sculpture.
Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City in 1942, the first of thirteen children into a wealthy Catholic family. Raised in a traditional way, she married the architect Manuel Rocha Diaz at the age of 20 and had three children in quick succession. The awakening at the end of the 1960s also shook this life plan.
As a result, she enrolled in the film school of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where she discovered photography and manual Alvarez Bravo. The great photographer became her mentor, whom she accompanied as an assistant on his travels through Mexico in 1971.
Here she got to know the indigenous communities of the country and developed her own photographic language as a precise and patient observer. Iturbide’s famous series from the 1980s and 1990s can be seen in the basement, always shot in natural light, without a tripod, flash or telephoto lens.
In 1978 she portrayed the nomadic tribe of the Seri, revealing the cultural tensions between tradition and western modernity. In 1980 she was involved with the White Fence Gang in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, whose members are deaf, in 1990 with the gruesome slaughtering of young goats, a ritual and festival in the Mixteca hills.
In fact, a strong preoccupation with death is noticeable in her work. When asked about it, she explains in the catalog that she was thinking of Jean Cocteau, who said that film was the only way to conquer death. That also applies to photography.