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PHOTO GALLERY

Images of the Spirit, Voices of the Soul

Inspired by Two Giants of Photography, Graciela Iturbide Makes the Ordinary Larger Than Life

November 10, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

The Paseo de la Reforma is the Champs Elysees of Mexico City, a great processional boulevard lined with imposing civic and commercial buildings and punctuated with proud national monuments. This Parisian-style street has long been as clear a symbol as any of a deep and dynamic interplay between modern French and Mexican culture, which continues even into the present. * Today that traditional aesthetic mix is evident as an animating force in the classically minded photographs of Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide. In beautifully printed black-and-white pictures of masked figures inhabiting incongruous settings; of ancient women carrying candles to illuminate the celebration of still another New Year; of a goat's head decorated with flowers to humbly consecrate its imminent slaughter; or of a forlorn peasant standing like a sentinel marking human continuity and pathos beneath a row of blankly anonymous pictures of long-forgotten national heroes, Iturbide invokes a striking union of two artistic forerunners. * One is Henri Cartier-Bresson. The often grainy, large-format pictures by the great Parisian artist made spontaneity, immediacy and expressive directness a standard vocabulary for Modernist photography.

The other is Manuel Alvarez Bravo. The emblematic images of mortality by the distinguished Mexican photographer speak of a culture in which death is not a dark and fearsome abyss but instead an engendering fact of life with all its conflicted mysteries.

Iturbide, trained to be a filmmaker, was 28 when she began work as a studio assistant to Alvarez Bravo. The experience led her to switch gears and take up still photography. A study trip to Europe and meeting Cartier-Bresson further cemented her decision.

Bravo and Cartier-Bresson, born in 1902 and 1908, respectively, had established their artistic directions by the early 1930s. Iturbide was born in the next decade--in Mexico City in 1942. That she has looked most closely to photographic precedents that predate her own life says something about her larger project as an artist: Iturbide's best pictures, which are often attuned to the multiple roles played by women throughout Mexico's diverse and varigated culture, resonate with myriad contradictions between the ecstatic vibrancy of the moment and the solemn eternity of death. Her photographs of a careworn woman seated before an empty shot glass in a Mexico City bar and of a peasant woman standing in a rural cemetery as a sudden flock of birds takes flight, like a cloud of tiny departing souls, shows the wide range of her artistic interests.

The photographs reproduced on these pages are from "Images of the Spirit," a new book (Iturbide's first) being published this month by Aperture. The book surveys her work from 1973 to the present and features pictures taken in Mexico, South America and East Los Angeles. Some of the images were seen last year in her first solo show in Los Angeles, at Santa Monica's Gallery of Contemporary Photography. Most will be included in a solo exhibition currently being organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 1998.

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