Juchitan De Las Mujeres Photographs by Graciela Iturbide. Text by Mario Bellatín, Elena Poniatowska. Published by RM/Editorial Calamus, 2009.
In 1979, Graciela Iturbide was just one of a group of artists invited by Juchitán-native Francisco Toledo to create work in his hometown in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the district to which it belongs, and the unique culture of its inhabitants form the subject matter of Juchitán de las Mujeres (a title which translates, awkwardly, as 'Juchitán of Women'). However, the scope of this body of work, made over a period of ten years, and of Iturbide's vision, suggest that the photographer somewhat exceeded her original brief.
Indeed, this work, initially intended for an exhibition Toledo planned at the Juchitán Casa de Cultura, exceeds many of the expectations one might have for a geographically-anchored project, which takes a visually and ideologically distinct culture as its subject. While there are elements of the work that seem straightforwardly anthropological - Iturbide's interest in dress, for example, or the recurring presence of particular totemic animals and animal icons - the photographs in which these emblems appear can be read equally as investigations in personality, identity and, more generally, presence. In one image, a girl, swathed in fabric, walks along the street with a group of similarly-clad women. She is recognisably part of a group, recognisably dressed for an occasion, but the image, dominated by her frame-filling figure and the billowing, patterned cloth that surrounds her, speaks as powerfully of how it feels to be this person, ceremonial yet exhilarated, as of how it looks.
We have become familiar, from more explicitly 'documentary' projects, with a photographic style that informs the viewer, through narrative detail, of the texture of the society we are observing. Iturbide's work is far more spontaneous in effect. In most of these images, the women she photographs are central to the frame, often making eye-contact with the viewer and obscuring their backdrop. The 'backgrounds' in these works are somehow nondescript - bleached out skies and bare or basic rooms usually direct attention back to the women portrayed, who stare and smile back, sometimes engaged in mundane activities, but more frequently, or so it seems, performing for the camera, aided by props, costumes and familial 'extras'.
These women are - as the book and its publisher, Editorial RM, emphasize - uniquely powerful. The indigenous Zapotec people who form the majority of Juchitán's population are unusual, we are told, in being a society dominated by women, and the essay contributed to this volume by novelist Mario Bellatin, evokes their gregarious, voluptuous, extravagant nature. However, it is instructive to compare the effect achieved by this essay with Iturbide's work itself, which does communicate a mood of female vivacity and community, and touches on similar themes of ritual, interaction between the generations and interaction with nature, yet seems far closer to its subjects in that it shows, rather than tells, their lives.
This emphasis on culture as it is lived rather than as it is described, is somehow also communicated through the design and format conceived for this re-release of Iturbide's project, first published in 1989. An elongated, upright format allows the work inside the book to be reproduced on a large scale, yet in an unusual and lively way, without large and deferential 'coffee-table book' borders. The unusual placement of some images on the page adds to this idiosyncratic, unexpected feel, and the individuals depicted in these photographs seem to jump up into the viewer's vision. The overall effect is one of assurance on the part of both photographer and subject.
There are moments of vulnerability and tenderness also. Indeed, solitary and introspective moments are expressed in a more conventional language, as in a photograph showing a young girl alone in bed surrounded by petals according to tradition and apparently anticipating her bridegroom, with eyes averted and the camera apparently a detached 'observer.' However, for the most part, this is a collection that identifies with its boisterous subject and forces the viewer to attempt the same feat.