When Graciela Iturbide, the Mexican photographer whose work is on view in the National Museum for Women in the Arts exhibition “Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico,” took to photographing indigenous people, she was acutely aware of these inclinations and the way naive fascination can devolve into a simplistic perspective.
Photographed by an outsider, a ritual as visceral as La Matanza (“the killing”), in which tens of thousands of goats are slaughtered annually in Oaxaca, could easily be seen as exotic or savage. But informed by a career spent immersing herself in indigenous communities across Mexico, Iturbide’s 1992 series is grounded in reality.
One shot captures heads of baby goats stacked in a wheelbarrow. You can imagine two takes: one romanticized, surreal — baby goats, asleep on a cloud — the other savage — blood dripping dramatically from their necks. But Iturbide avoids both by emphasizing context: Above the goat heads, a man’s elbow rests on the handle, holding a prayer book, in repentance, the wall text tells us, for their slaughter. He looks almost bored.
Nose wrinkled, teeth gripping a blade, arms wrangling an unseen animal, Iturbide’s “Carmen” represents the slaughter’s other extreme, found not in gory goat carcasses, but in the strenuous conditions of laborers. By immersing herself in the world of her subjects, Iturbide is able to capture the unexpected, not in relation to her expectations but in relation to the place itself.
This marks a departure from her predecessors. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed the same regions of Mexico as Iturbide, but his subjects typically avert their gaze, and his figures are often cordoned off: In one, a woman from Juchitan sits collapsed on the floor, framed by the legs of a table. In another, faces peek through openings in a stucco wall. Known for coining the term “decisive moment,” Cartier-Bresson captured Mexico in a way that depended on a certain kind of contrived “genius.” And sure, in Bresson’s photos, you can see his formal skill. But can you see his subjects?
If Bresson believed a good photograph came from a flash of genius, like a definitive line strewn across a painting, Iturbide’s photographs come from a layering of moments, like a vibrant background illuminating every shape on a canvas.
Rather than center herself in the process, Iturbide trusts her subjects to reveal themselves to her over time. Proof sheets included in the NMWA show offer insight into how her images accrue — each shot appearing like a new coat of paint, moving gradually toward the right tone. In the series of proofs featuring a woman wearing a bizarre crown of live iguanas — whom Iturbide famously dubbed “Our Lady of the Iguanas” — the figure’s face lightens and brightens with each successive image. The result is radiant.
Iturbide’s photographs exist both in an instant and in eternity. “INRI” reflects compositional skill: In the foreground, a woman from Juchitán stands as upright as the crucifix framing her — captioned with the Latin initials for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” — while a man’s body, flat on his back, echoes the horizontal street.
It’s an image of daily life, but it’s daily life imbued with an insider’s understanding. It’s not just an image of a woman holding a basket, but an image of Woman as a dominant presence in the Juchitán economy. It’s just another crucifix, but it’s also a symptom of Catholicism’s omnipresence in Mexico. The man is drunk, but according to Iturbide, he is also representative of the way “women are always solid and men fall.”
Iturbide’s sensitivity to the way small moments and routines multiply to create lives and histories feels especially salient in her photographs of Frida Kahlo’s bathroom.
With its serpentine medical tubes and dirtied orthopedic braces, Kahlo’s bathroom, which was sealed off after her death for preservation — almost a kind of shrine — lends visual evidence to Kahlo’s lifelong suffering after a childhood bus accident left her paralyzed.
But there’s a way in which Iturbide’s documentation feels like art too. Kahlo gestures at her medical battles in her artistic work, but here, we see the creation that has resulted from them: the impression of her body in a brace hanging limply from a faucet; the texture of her torso echoed in the wear and tear of a corset; a hospital gown soiled by her blood or paint or both.
Kahlo, who died in 1954, is not present in these photos, which were taken in 2006 — neither Kahlo the artist, beatified in textbooks, nor Kahlo the caricature, parodied on coffee mugs. Yet, somehow, it feels like Kahlo the person — in all of her vulnerability and humanity — is everywhere.
Graciela Iturbide's Mexico
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. 202-783-5000. nmwa.org.
Dates: Through May 25.
Admission: $10; $8 for seniors and students; free for members and ages 18 and under.