Graciela Iturbide

February 11, 2022

“Heliotropo 37,” at Paris’s Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, is named after the address of Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico City studio, a place vibrantly outfitted with folk art and plants within a brick fortress designed by her son, Mauricio Rocha (he did the exhibition scenography, too). “Helio means light; tropo means something that goes around: It just so happens I’m on a street whose name perfectly corresponds with photography,” Iturbide marveled over Zoom while smoking from her couch. On view from February 12 to May 29, 2022, the survey spans two hundred images, plus an exhibition-specific commission. In her winsome, gravelly voice, she discussed the care she took photographing insular communities and her recent geological obsession.

I DON’T TRY TO CHANGE THE WORLD with my photographs. I take photographs of what I like, what I’m attracted to . . . maybe that’s selfish. I don’t intend to do more than photograph what I find compelling. I speak with people to find out the local legends and tales, extraordinary stories. I initially wanted to become a writer, when I was young, but given the conservatism in families like mine, it wasn’t possible. I always read a lot. There’s a Puerto Rican writer, Luce Lopez, who delved into the hidden correspondence between Juan de la Cruz and Rumi, one of the major Sufi writers, during the time of the Inquisition. They’ve influenced me, as well as Pasolini and Brassaï.

When one photographs mostly “unknown” regions, there is always a risk that you’re going to exoticize the subject. I’m very preoccupied by this: I try to never fall into folklore. There’s a real danger in photography that it’s going to “other.” This is why I try to be austere. When I did self-portraits integrating 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’s about myself, but I would never use this kind of performativity with subjects: I take them as is. Like a photograph I took of a Juchitán woman with iguanas on her head; she represented a kind of Medusa. 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 her to place the iguanas on her 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 was alive, I would certainly ask him!

Nowadays, I concentrate on landscapes. I’m just back from Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, where I was playing a lot with my own shadow. And I was absolutely fascinated by the volcanoes, the lava, and the sea. I spent a whole month taking photos of lava: It has its own independence. It was like seeing how life could have been at the very beginning, straight after the Big Bang. In fact, the last great exhibition I saw was in Barcelona about the Big Bang. It was incredibly serendipitous: After three weeks in Lanzarote, where I’d become really interested in evolution, I then happened upon this exhibition. Life leads you to places that fit! Now I want to go to the Galapagos, where Darwin worked. The experience in Lanzrote triggered my imagination. I felt like a witness to how the world could have begun. I was at Las Palmas, where the volcano was active—I wasn’t allowed too close. But now I want to go to other places to photograph lava.

I never work on a single project. I sort photographs into boxes in my studio according to themes, and build them up little by little. I have ongoing projects, like one on botanical gardens. The first photo I took was in Oaxaca. When I was in Lanzarote, the local botanical gardens featured an amazing collection of cacti. Most of them were from Mexico [laughter], but they looked different there. 

I spent the pandemic looking through my negatives. It’s a never-ending work-in-progress: I keep taking photographs of things that move me, then constantly revise and add and take away. I still do analogue photography—I don’t know how to use my digital camera. I’m used to seeing the world through the viewfinder. I like the ritual of taking the photographs, developing the film, studying the contact sheets.

I never take color photographs except for commissioned work. But Alexis Fabry, the main curator of this Foundation Cartier show, asked me to do a small color series, and I did. The images were taken in Tecali, not far from my home. I decided on stones because they would be tranquil, not too bright. I did the whole series in one morning. I gave over the negatives. I haven’t seen the prints yet, but I have good faith.

— As told to Sarah Moroz