Graciela Iturbide on her life in photography
“Heliotropo 37”, at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, is named after the address of Graciela Iturbide’s studio in Mexico City, a vibrant place of folk art and plants in a brick fortress designed by his son, Mauricio Rocha (he also did the scenography for the exhibition). “Helio means light; too much means something going around: I happen to be on a street whose name perfectly matches the photograph,” Iturbide marveled at Zoom while smoking from her couch. Presented from February 12 to May 29, 2022, the survey covers two hundred images, plus a specific order for the exhibition. In her beautiful gravelly voice, she talks about the care she takes in photographing island communities and her recent obsession with geology.
I’M NOT TRYING TO CHANGE THE WORLD with my photographs. I take pictures of what I like, what attracts me. . . maybe it’s selfish. I don’t intend to do more than photograph what I find fascinating. I speak with people to discover local legends and tales, extraordinary stories. I first wanted to become a writer when I was young, but given the conservatism in families like mine, it was not possible. I still read a lot. There is a Puerto Rican writer, Luce Lopez, who delved into the hidden correspondence between Juan de la Cruz and Rumi, one of the main Sufi writers, during the time of the Inquisition. They influenced me, as well as Pasolini and Brassaï.
When we mainly photograph “unknown” regions, there is always a risk of exoticism of the subject. I’m very concerned about that: I try never to fall into folklore. There is a real danger in photography that it goes towards “the other”. That’s why I try to be austere. When I made self-portraits incorporating snakes and fish and birds, the images corresponded to my state of mind because I was dealing with a separation. Folklore is allowed when it comes to me, but I would never use that kind of performativity with subjects: I take them as is. Like a photograph I took of a Juchitán woman with iguanas on her head; it represented a kind of jellyfish. People made sculptures and ceramics of her, and she became an icon of her village and region. But the image was taken entirely by chance. I would never have dared to ask him to place the iguanas on his head, they were already there. But on my own face, I can put whatever I want. Why did I put a fish in my mouth? I have no idea. If Freud were alive, I would certainly ask him!
Today, I focus on landscapes. I have just come back from Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, where I played a lot with my own shadow. And I was absolutely fascinated by volcanoes, lava and the sea. I spent a whole month photographing lava: it has its own independence. It was like seeing how life could have been at the very beginning, right after the Big Bang. In fact, the last big exhibition I saw was in Barcelona on the Big Bang. It was incredibly fortuitous: after three weeks in Lanzarote, where I had been really interested in evolution, I then came across this exhibition. Life takes you to places that suit you! Now I want to go to Galapagos, where Darwin worked. The Lanzrote experience sparked my imagination. I felt like a witness to how the world could have started. I was in Las Palmas, where the volcano was active, I had no right to be too close. But now I want to go to other places to photograph the lava.
I never work on just one project. I sort the photographs in boxes in my studio according to themes, and accumulate them little by little. I have projects in progress, like the one on the botanical gardens. The first photo I took was in Oaxaca. When I was in Lanzarote the local botanical gardens had an amazing collection of cacti. Most of them were from Mexico [laughter]but they looked different there.
I spent the pandemic going through my negatives. It’s a never-ending work in progress: I keep taking pictures of things that move me, then I’m constantly revising, adding and taking away. I still do analog photography, I don’t know how to use my digital camera. I’m used to seeing the world through the viewfinder. I love the ritual of taking photos, developing film, studying contact sheets.
I never take color photographs except for commissioned work. But Alexis Fabry, the main curator of this Fondation Cartier exhibition, asked me to do a small color series, and I did. The images were taken in Tecali, not far from my home. I opted for stones because they would be quiet, not too shiny. I did the whole series in one morning. I gave the negative points. I haven’t seen the prints yet, but I’m in good faith.