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Scenes of a world caught dreaming

Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide finds moments of surprise, acts of self-creation and hints of the surreal.

December 30, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

IMAGINE a world where there are no judgments, no slurs or "bad" words; a place where women move in independence, where age and sexual orientation are moot; where time has adopted a different meter and language is a convergence of deeply understood gestures -- a transcendent place where past, future and present merge for one-sixtieth of a second.

This is no figment of the imagination. These are the truths that have taken form in photographer Graciela Iturbide's eye.

For more than 30 years, Iturbide has been working in the realms of dust, sweat, concrete, chain-link and bleaching sun, unearthing pride, self-confidence, love, eroticism, persistence, survival and the delicate process of self-definition in those who live in the ambiguity of the margins. Her gaze is without judgment, imbued with empathy, bringing the unseen into focus. In small villages in Mexico, she's absorbed the emotional push-pull of la frontera, which echoes again in the day-to-day rituals of East Los Angeles gangs. Near the border and in the inscrutable landscapes of Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, she's created photographs that eloquently capture what it means to occupy an undefined space, the land of the unnoticed or passed by.

Her images inhabit the province of dreams: The mundane is upended by a juxtaposition, an anachronism -- a woman in near silhouette, dressed in what appears to be a traditional costume, descends a hill into a spreading valley, improbably carrying a boom box. A simple tilt of the frame shifts the plane -- and our way of seeing the world and ourselves.

A student of photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and perhaps most famous for a prodigious, alluring body of work made over six years in the remote village of Juchitan in Oaxaca, Iturbide, 65, has had a prolific career and has shown all over the world. This month, however, marks her first museum exhibition in Los Angeles. "Danza de la Cabrita (The Goat's Dance)" at the Getty Center contains nearly 140 pieces highlighting Iturbide's work in Mexico and the U.S. -- and the line in the sand that attempts to separate the overlapping lives she's found there. "The Mexican and the American Mexican," says Iturbide, "are marginal people -- on both sides of that line."

Her work expresses "the culture between the culture," says author Luis Rodriguez, who has also been pulled to the worlds that call to Iturbide -- Oaxaca and of course the East L.A. gangs he became famous for writing about in his memoir "Always Running." "It's the way I think of Mexico when I'm in Mexico City. You feel all the layers -- the ancient, the indigenous, the modern all coming together. Her photographs are borderless. Everything comes streaming over it. No border, no wall will stop that."

While her work reflects an amalgam of influences -- there are echoes of Mexican printmakers and muralists and a slithery sense of surrealism -- Iturbide has long been led by a deep certainty she can't consciously calibrate. "I like the surprise," she says, lighting on a padded bench in the Getty gallery, surrounded by almost four decades of work. Her short, spiked hair is slightly windblown, but her gaze is fixed -- she's the picture of calm given that she arrived only hours ago from Mexico City, just in time to see the last frame placed. "If I walk the streets in Rome, in Mexico, in Paris, for me the most important thing is the passion and the surprise that comes with it."

The surprises can be anywhere: on the street, in the tray, on a forgotten contact sheet where she discovers an image that had somehow eluded her. You could call the magic intuition, chance, luck. Echoing Cartier-Bresson and his decisive moment, she calls it "the necessary instant."

Much of Iturbide's life has been marked by necessary instants both tragic and transcendent. The oldest of 13 children born into an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City, Iturbide started on the road to a traditional life. She was married at 19 and soon had children. Still harboring creative desires, she enrolled at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinemagraphicos in 1969, thinking she would study screenwriting. In 1970, however, her daughter, Claudia, died suddenly at age 6. She found solace in a course in still photography taught by Alvarez Bravo. As luck or necessary instants would have it, she was the only pupil. Soon, she wasn't simply the student but the assistant-cum-apprentice, her "classes" conducted at Alvarez Bravo's home. "We talked about art and literature, music and painting," she says. "He'd put on Bach and we'd listen. And if I would say, 'Oh, Maestro, how would you make that print?' He would say: 'Kodak has literature in the package telling you how.' He was a special, special teacher. And for me there was no one in my life like that."

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