“Sonora Desert” by Graciela Iturbide

On a leisurely stroll in the Tate Modern, my attention was caught by a gelatin silver print belonging to Graciela Iturbide as part of a series of 5 portraits taken in the Sonora desert, Mexico.

It is a black and white portrait of an indigenous young woman that exudes strength and pride. She does not make a direct gaze with the viewer, instead focusing slightly above her and towards the left.  This produces an air of mystery as you are left to choose whether it is her pride that prevents a direct gaze or that there was something a bit more interesting than Iturbide herself at the time.

The protagonist wears a button down shirt with two-toned piping running down from her shoulders towards her breasts and parallel to the buttons.  The top button of the shirt is left unopened whilst the second one remains closed with a metal pin.  This may give clues about the socioeconomic status of the individual.  She wears a simple bead necklace and her long straight hair run down predominantly on her left shoulder.

The image was taken from below the woman, elongating her torso and neck.  By positioning in such manner, Iturbide has given her strength, power, confidence and pride.  She has also exaggerated her chin and glorified her indigenous bone structure and strengthened the ethnic identity.  The shallow depth of field is focused on her skin allowing the viewer to see details such as her pores.  There is no visible background apart from the dark cloudless sky. These elements make the protagonist the pure focus of this image and finds immense strength through its effortless simplicity.

The lighting is harsh on her face, producing shadows which adds onto “this is me and I am not going to change myself for flattery” feeling.  The time of the day that this may have been taken could be midday as demonstrated by the harsh lighting.  It is likely that fill-in flash was also used to allow more details of the skin to be seen and darkened the sky to add onto the drama of the shot.

This black framed with large white mounting print is flanked either side by more portraits from the same series that feature individuals from Sonora Desert from the same year.  These too have been taken with almost none to very simple backgrounds and angled to give power to those who are featured. They all appear to have a strong sense of identity and make an impact through its simplicity and focus.  The frame and its wide mounting add onto the monochromatic images.  The print could have easily drowned in such heavy white mounting however the dark sky background creates a strong contrast and provides the protagonist space to be distinct from the gallery surroundings.

Graciela Iturbide was born in 1942 in Mexico City. She studied in Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos at the Universidad Nacional Autónama de México to become a film director, however she was influence by her tutor Manuel Alvarez Bravo and chose to continue in still photography. She has worked as his assistant and travelled widely across South America.  In 1978 she was commissioned by the Ethnographic Archive of the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico to photograph the country’s indigenous people.  This work took her to the Sonora Desert- an area that covers part of Southwest USA and Northern Mexico.

Here she photographed people that a growing part of the modern Mexican culture find unattractive.  The norm is to appreciate features that are more of European descent and this is evidenced by the booming plastic surgery industry.  What I responded most to is the dignified expression this young woman wears on her face that gives the impression she is well-rooted and a non-conformist to a changing attitudes of an “evolving” culture.

Iturbide’s work in the gallery ranges from these seemingly simple portraits to still life and journalistic pieces.  She shows everyday life where she lives, the same way that Eggleston does, however rather than using abstract shapes and bold colours she mostly works in black and white print and focuses more on indigenous rituals, gender identity and contrasts of urban and rural life.

She is featured in the Poetry and Dreams section, which features a mixture of paintings, sculptures and installations.  Iturbide’s work is in the adjacent room to works such as Barkley L. “Hendricks’ NNN (No Naked Niggahs)” and Christain Schad’s “Agosta, the Pigeon Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove” both of which form part of Realism movement in the 20th century which is aimed to be immediately understandable as it is “made for ordinary people”.

At first it may not make sense that hyperrealistic or “immediately understandable” images are in the Poetry and Dreams section along side work such as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman 1937” or Joan Miro’s “Women and Bird in the Moonlight 1949”. However it would not be open minded to limit poetry and dreams to unusual colours and shapes.  Everyday life is poetic and dream-like provided you can see it.  It is obvious Iturbide does and she takes us along with her.

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