Images of the Spirit: The Evocative Vision of Graciela Iturbide

The Mexican photographer blends history, lyricism and portraiture to record cultures in transition.

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The breakthrough moment in the career of photographer Graciela Iturbide came in 1979 when the renowned Mexican painter Francisco Toledo asked her to do a series of photographs of his hometown, Juchitán, in Oaxaca. The photo-essay that resulted focused on the matriarchal nature of that Zapotec Indian community and documented the powerful role of women in the society--women as healers, as political leaders, as merchants, as sexual sirens.

A number of these photographs will be included in a large retrospective of Iturbide's work organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Images of the Spirit: Photographs of Graciela Iturbide" opens in Philadelphia on June 14 and runs through August 9. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a handsome book published by Aperture, will then travel to five cities across the country.

Iturbide is part of a cultural continuum of Mexican artists and writers, from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to Rufino Tamayo and Toledo, who have attempted to rip away their country's Hispanic mask and expose its underlying Indian reality. But what lends originality to Iturbide's work, writes author Jonathan Kandell, "is her conviction that traditional societies are strong enough to withstand the intrusion of the modern world."

In such iconic images as Mujer ángel (Angel woman), which captures a Seri Indian woman in traditional dress walking into the Sonoran Desert, boom box in hand, and Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), in which a Juchitán merchant wears a headdress of live iguanas, Iturbide transforms the ordinary into the surreal.

"I don't pretend to make my photographs speak the truth of what Mexico is all about," says Iturbide. "But in its villages I can feel the way culture is changing, and it's fascinating to live through it and try to capture it on camera."

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