Born in 1942 in Mexico City, Graciela Iturbide says she happened upon her life’s work quite accidentally. She wanted to study literature and become a writer.
“But in my bourgeois family it was just not possible at all,” she tells me in Spanish through an interpreter, “for a woman to go to university in the 60s. So I felt very frustrated.”
Iturbide married young. But after her kids got a little older, she went back to night school to study cinema. Well-known photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo was giving classes. Bravo had made a name for himself in the 1920s and 30s, working with muralists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Iturbide says she got lucky and became Bravo’s apprentice in the early 1970s.
“He opened, I would say, the wonders of the world to my eyes and gave me the opportunity to discover my country, and then the rest of the world,” Iturbide says.
An exhibition of Iturbide’s work runs through the end of May in Paris. The emblematic figure of Latin American photography, now almost 80, first became known for her portraits of indigenous peoples. She later traveled outside Mexico to photograph Chicano communities in Los Angeles and transgender people in India, winning international renown for her portraits of marginalized people across the globe.
As she talks being a successful photographer, Iturbide quotes another icon, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“He said that there was one decisive moment when you are a photographer, and that is the moment when you actually seize your camera and take the picture.”
Whatever the camera, success depends on the eye behind it, she says. And passion, dedication and discipline.
“There’s a word some people use in relation to her work that I think is not a bad word,” says Alexis Fabry, curator of the exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. “It’s anthro poetry — that very subtle oscillation in her work between something that could be anthropological and something that is poetical.”
Fabry says this exhibit traces Iturbide’s slow journey from people to abstraction…uniting herself with nature, objects and animals.
Iturbide says her interests changed in the years partly because drug wars made it difficult to travel to indigenous regions. Instead she decided to focus on human beings’ relationship with objects.
“I think we are accompanied [by] gardens, mountains, objects and stones. Stones were the first thing that arrived after the big bang. And I’m very interested in everything that has to do with life, everything that surrounds us.”
The retrospective at the Cartier Foundation brings together more than 200 of Iturbide’s images from around the world, spanning her work from the 1970s to the present.