Surrealist photography captures the soul at the Getty

Jessica Hager

The process and art form of photography has captured people’s fascination since its inception in the early 19th century. Producing a photograph was complicated in those days, and so only a privileged few had their image recorded. These days, however, anyone with access to a disposable camera or cell phone can snap a picture. Amongst the many images we are bombarded with on a daily basis, it takes a true artist to deliver a photograph that makes you stop and think.

Graciela Iturbide is one such artist. Her photographs, taken in both her home country of Mexico and in the United States, capture everyday life, yet are imbued with a sense of strangeness, wonder and beauty.

In the photo titled “Mujer ‘aacute;ngel (Angel Woman),” an indigenous Mexican woman dressed in traditional costume is seen from the back, running through the Sonora desert with a boom box in her hand. The photo has a surreal quality that is present in many of Iturbide’s pieces. The black and white image of the woman in a long skirt with the desert in the background creates a timeless, almost storybook feel, yet the boom box adds an offbeat and modern twist.

In her current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, titled “Danza De La Cabrita (The Goat’s Dance),” which runs until April 13, Iturbide displays over 100 photographs spanning 30 years of her work. The exhibit is broken down into different collections, each one portraying a different area of either Mexico or the U.S., representing different periods of the artist’s life and career.

The collection after which the exhibition was named, “The Goat’s Dance,” portrays the ritual sacrifice of goats by the Mixtec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico. Iturbide photographed the annual ritual in October of 1992, capturing the slaughter of the goats and a tradition in which one goat is spared from sacrifice, crowned with flowers and put on the shoulders of a young boy, who dances with it. The explanation that accompanies this collection tells viewers that the ritual relates to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and that it has been performed since the Spanish first arrived in that part of Mexico.

Iturbide’s love for her native country is best represented by the portraits she has taken through the years of the people of Mexico. Her interest in the Indian populations of the country led her to Juchitan in 1979, where she photographed the Zapotec – an indigenous group known for their matriarchal structure and the independence of the women.

One of Iturbide’s better-known photographs, and the one used to promote the exhibition, is of a Zapotec woman titled “Nuestra Se’ntilde;ora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas).” In the photo, a woman is standing looking out into the distance, with a group of iguanas balanced on her head. The viewer learns that her name is Zoraida, and that Iturbide captured her image as she prepared to sell those iguanas at market.

The photo, which shows a strong and confident Zapotec woman, has become a symbol of the strength and independence of the indigenous people of Mexico. The accompanying explanation for this photo tells the viewer that the people of Juchitan adopted this image, creating a banner from it.

The viewer also learns that it was Iturbide’s deep admiration for the indigenous community that led to her extensively photographing their traditions, rituals and lives. Images of children dressed for fiesta, men dressed in women’s costume, and women preparing for rituals in their homes are also included in the collection.

If one quality of a great photographer is to open the eyes of the viewer to new experiences, or to cause a viewer to see old experiences in new ways, then Iturbide is a great photographer. Her pictures are not pretty or glamorous and there are no special effects or extra-ordinary scenes or subjects, but she does manage to capture the real and mundane with the eye of a true artist.

In her collection titled “La Frontera (The Border),” Iturbide captures images from the border between Mexico and the U.S. One such photograph, “La Frontera, Tijuana,” captures a man with his bare back exposed to the camera, revealing a large tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Iturbide captures the prevalence of the image of Guadalupe around Tijuana, painted on walls, in murals and other places. Other images include children around Tijuana and landscape shots of the desert. Her photographs express the humanity, realism, and poignancy of the border areas between Mexico and the U. S.

Iturbide traveled to the United States in the spring of 1986 to document the lives of Mexican Americans living in East L.A. What results are images of a group of people who have created their own unique culture. The collection also explores cholo style, gang activity and graffiti art and tagging. Once again, Iturbide captured real life images with thoughtful, human and artistic qualities.

Iturbide’s photographs, though simple and quite stark, capture life in a contemplative and even surreal way. She causes the viewer to do a double take with her portraits and landscapes; surprising you with the amount of feeling she has managed to infuse into each image.