Mexican Photography: Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño & the Influence of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art posits Mexico’s valuable artistic legacy. José Clemente Orozo, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, towering artistic figures, inspired American artists to expose political and social injustices in their art. During this same time photography was also gaining recognition as an authentic art form.

Our photograph sales regularly feature photographs by the Mexican photographers Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide and Flor Garduño. Here we explore their histories and what has influenced their photography practices.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Images by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a self-taught photographer, were initially championed by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, whom he met in Mexico City in the early 1920s. By the following decade, Álvarez Bravo’s distinctive pictures were embraced by the Surrealists and sold by Julien Levy, the renowned Paris and New York gallerist. Álvarez Bravo’s photographs represented a visual reality that captured quotidian scenes of everyday life with an astute awareness of indigenous artistic traditions.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Retrato de lo Eterno, silver print, 1935, printed 1970s. Sold in our June 2020 sale of Fine Photographs for $4,420.

Álvarez Bravo’s contemporaries rendered epic narratives, huge wall murals, in warm earthy tones. His focus, however, was on stories that spontaneously unfolded on city streets and intimate moments rendered in a monochromatic palette of crisp blacks-and-whites. With his poetic proclivities and unique visual content, he created a dynamic iconography that melded pride in Mexico’s cultural heritage with high art aspirations. In Álvarez Bravo’s Retrato de lo Eterno, 1935, he depicts the artist, poet, singer, and songwriter Isabel Villaseñor, who was a remarkable personality and talent in post-revolutionary Mexico. By the 1940s, Álvarez Bravo established a reputation as Mexico’s preeminent photographer, exhibiting internationally in fine art galleries and museums. Subsequently, decades later, he personally influenced a new generation of women photographers, among them Graciela Iturbide and Flor Garduño, both of whom refer to him as a mentor.

Related Reading: A Brief History of the Mixografia Printing Process and Notes from the Catalogue: Latin American Art

Graciela Iturbide

Graciela Iturbide, born in 1942, is considered one of Mexico’s leading photographers. Her father was an amateur practitioner who enjoyed shooting images of his 12 children. As a child, she was fascinated by her dad’s pictures, which he secreted away in a dresser. She would repeatedly steal the prints, reveling in images of familiar faces and unfamiliar places and people. From the beginning photography was a means to explore new personal experiences.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo as Iturbide’s Mentor

As an emerging photographer in the 1970s, a tumultuous period in Mexico associated with political unrest, she sought out Álvarez Bravo as her teacher. A revered figure who enjoyed international acclaim as his country’s greatest photographer, Álvarez Bravo’s advice was to remain apolitical and broadly define her vision, noting, “It is good to separate yourself because you can start again, you can discover so many things, archaeology, books, paintings.” Iturbide seized on this wisdom and developed a multi-faceted approach to artistic image-making at the interstices of gender and Latin American studies. A second-wave feminist, Iturbide’s oeuvre visually interprets the Mexican people from her unique woman-identified perch. Indeed a leitmotif of her work counters the in-your-face machismo with multi-layered images depicting the country’s rich pre-historic customs, a time-honored social order that is reinforced by stark colonial (read: Catholic) influences and religious practices, with women occupying center stage.

Photographing the Zapotec People of Juchitan, Oaxaca

Graciela Iturbide, Magnolia, Juchitán, Oaxaca, oversize silver print, 1986. Sold in our June 2020 sale of Fine Photographs for $7,500.

From 1979 to 1986 she photographed the Zapotec people of Juchitán, Oaxaca, a region where matrilineal power has long been asserted and conventional gender roles are openly questioned. Her image, Nuestra Señora de Las Iguanas [Our Lady of the Iguanas, Oaxaca, Mexico], 1979, quickly achieved iconic status. A statue commemorating the figure was commemorated in Juchitan. And her prescient photograph Magnolia, Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1986, a portrait of a Muxe—the Mexican term for those in the Zapotec cultures who are either transgender or nonbinary—wearing a dress and looking at their reflection in a mirror, was also made in the same town.

Iturbide’s Own Legacy & Lexicon

Iturbide, who strongly identifies as a Mexican photographer, condemns Eurocentric terms like magic realism, which she characterized as “completely commodifying, patronizing and paternalistic.” Instead, her pictures embrace a visual lexicon that draws on her own intuition and deliberately avoids formulas or “isms.” Her expressive photographs offer new symbolism and meaning, foregrounding the beauty and power of women, outliers and transgender people to counter conventional perceptions.

Flor Garduño

Flor Garduño’s signature images juxtapose aspects of Mexican and Central American daily life against larger universal themes. Born in 1957 in Mexico City, her family moved to a hacienda in a remote area at the age of five. Her earliest memories were informed by interactions with the natural environment, particularly her childhood attachment to domestic and farm animals.

Kati Horna & Manuel Álvarez Bravo as Garduño’s Mentors

From 1976 to 1978 she pursued an art degree at the Antigua Academia de San Carlos (UNAM) under the tutelage of the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, who became her earliest influence. Like other photographers forced to flee their European homelands in the 1930s, the powerful emotional undercurrents of Horna’s photographs, which melded elements of surrealism with documentary photography, had a strong impact on Garduño’s emerging aesthetic.

In 1979 she was offered an opportunity to apprentice as Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s assistant. She worked for Álvarez Bravo for several years honing her skills in the darkroom, where she produced both analog silver gelatin and platinum prints. By the mid-1980s, Garduño was hired by the Secretariat of Education for Indigenous Communities, which was directed by the photographer Mariana Yampolsky. Traveling extensively for many years, she was exposed to a range of customs and cultures, visiting remote rural areas in order to find appropriate subjects for reading primers. It was during this period that she developed her own visual style.

Garduño’s Photographic Style

Flor Garduño, La Columna, Mexico, silver print, 2004. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500. Sold in our June 2020 sale of Fine Photographs for $2,500.

Garduño has photographed in Mexico and Central America and her works reflect a personal visual journey. Her photographs have a dream-like quality that often appears surrealist, resulting in an idiosyncratic personal lexicon that captures the uncanny nature of everyday life while keenly integrating what might be characterized as the elemental feminine. She has also worked in a directorial mode. Her studio portraits, which are explorations of the female form, sometimes include her daughter, Azul, as a model.

Garduño’s monochromatic prints are stunning objects, exploring the emotional qualities of light and shadow, rendering her subjects in harmonious detail and dimensionality. Her iconic image, Canasta de luz [Basket of Light], 1985, shows an indigenous teenage girl balancing a large basket of lilies on her head. The flowers are radiant and appear to glow from within. Interestingly, the inspiration for the photograph is enriched by pairing it with Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s vividly painted Vendedora de Alcatraces [Calla Lilly Vendor], 1929. While the subject matter is identical (local flower vendors), with each artist choosing to elevate the role of the street vendor, Garduño’s image reflects the particularities of the agency of light, brilliantly capturing its luminescence.

Flor Garduño, Arbol de los Cuervas [Tree of the Ravens], Mexico, silver print, 2017. Sold in our June 2020 sale of Fine Photographs for $4,000.

During the past thirty years, though Garduño’s body of work has addressed multiple themes, underpinning her approach is a contemporary appreciation of women’s distinct role and how that lends itself to photographic representation. Her iconic works transcend time, revealing themselves as aspects of our collective unconscious.

More from the Photography Department: The Social Document: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and California Modernism: Photography from Group f/64

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