Graciela Iturbide’s Photos of Mexico Make ‘Visible What, to Many, Is Invisible’

Graciela Iturbide’s Photos of Mexico Make ‘Visible What, to Many, Is Invisible’

Graciela Iturbide may be one of the most renowned photographers working today. Five decades into her journey with a camera, her work, most famously in indigenous communities in her native Mexico, has achieved that rare trifecta — admired by critics, revered by fellow photographers and adored by the public. She continues to travel, photograph and exhibit all over the world.

But it is becoming impossible to discuss her work without mentioning the Zapotec woman wearing five live iguanas on her head.

Ms. Iturbide made the photo after happening upon Zobeida Díaz at a farmer’s market while living with the Juchitán of southeastern Oaxaca in 1979. It took several tries — the iguanas kept moving around, falling off, reducing her subject to laughter — but on her contact sheet, Ms. Iturbide found her “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas),” an image so arresting that 40 years later, its popularity is still growing.

In Mexico, “Nuestra Señora” is on murals, posters, postcards and road signs to Juchitán, and rendered into a life-size bronze sculpture in the Juchitán town square. It covers a brick building wall in East Los Angeles. It has gone viral. Fans have taken the rich black-and-white image and recreated it into graphic art, self-portraits, YouTube videos.

No wonder Ms. Iturbide says the image “is no longer mine.”

Nor is that iconic image her only claim to fame. In a long and varied career, Ms. Iturbide, 76, has done deep dives into her beloved country. She has documented the Seri Indians of Sonora, goat-slaughter festivals among the Mixtec of Oaxaca, funeral rites, cultural practices, complex landscapes, birds, herself.

Selections from these projects, “Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico,” drawn primarily from her own collection, will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, from Jan. 19 to May 12. Some of her most recent work, on Frida Kahlo’s bathroom (opened 50 years after Diego Rivera locked it upon her death), goes on display on Feb. 27 through June 16) as part of the museum’s exhibit “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular.”

“Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico” unpacks Ms. Iturbide’s artistic journey as she captures layers of Mexico’s exquisitely diverse cultures and practices, struggles and contrasts.

Of course, it includes “Our Lady of the Iguanas,” on loan from the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum. It also includes “Angel Woman (Mujer Angel),” arguably Ms. Iturbide’s second-most famous image, an ethereal image taken from behind of a Seri woman with hair down her back and traditional dress who seems to float through the desert carrying the cultural prop of urban life at the time: a boombox.

In image after image, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Kristen Gresh, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh curator of photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, who worked closely with Ms. Iturbide in organizing the exhibit, said what made her unique among the pantheon of photographers working today was her empathetic approach.

“For her, the camera is an instrument of sharing, making visible what, to many, is invisible,” Ms. Gresh said. Ms. Iturbide’s photos, she added, provide “a poetic vision of contemporary culture informed by a sense of life’s surprises and mysteries.”

To Ms. Iturbide, based in Mexico City, her approach is simple. Using natural light, sans tripod, flashes and telephoto lenses, she follows her curiosity and takes photos — always black-and-white — when she sees what she likes. She allows for the magic of surprise when she examines her contact sheets. She eschews labels (don’t ask her if she’s a surrealist or a magical realist) and calls herself “complicit” with her subjects.

Ms. Iturbide followed her passion when she chucked the comfortable confines of a wealthy Catholic upbringing, got divorced and began studying film at age 27. She switched to still photography upon meeting her mentor, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, considered the father of modern Mexican photography. (She never fails to mention his influence.)

She also credits Francisco Toledo, the acclaimed artist, for her breakthrough project for inviting her to photograph Juchitán, his hometown. More recently, in 1998, Mr. Toledo invited her to photograph the newly opened Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, designed to tell the story of the cultural and ecological relationship of Oaxacans with their native plants. As images from the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit show, Ms. Iturbide was most fascinated with plants — cactuses — ailing and bandaged — that revealed the interconnectedness explicitly and symbolically.

Asked what inspires her, she said, “I find my artistic inspiration in life — in what I see, and in what I do.”

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