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“I try to find something poetic in what I’m photographing.”

Graciela Iturbide

Graciela Iturbide is among the most renowned photographers from Latin America. A profound interest and knowledge of her native country Mexico combined with an extraordinary visual talent have enabled her to create a remarkably body of work full of poetry, magic and intimacy.

What Graciela Iturbide can teach you about finding your own style in photography

The other day I got my hands on a small book called Graciela Iturbide habla con Fabienne Bradu. It’s a collection of interviews which the French writer had conducted with the Mexican photographer. In beautiful words, Graciela Iturbide describes her relationship with legendary artist and fellow countryman Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902 – 2002) who had been both a mentor and teacher to her.

The text provides excellent thoughts on how to develop one’s own style in photography:

  1. Find a mentor and learn from his or her experience
  2. Observe carefully and let yourself be guided by your intuition
  3. Know when the right moment has come to end the relationship with your mentor or teacher in order to grow as an artist
  4. Be patient and work hard
  5. Be aware of your influences rather than trying to pretend to be original – after all everything has already been photographed
  6. Treat your subjects with respect and create some sort of complicity with them in order to get intimate images that breathe the essence of a certain place and its people
Our Lady of the Iguanas is an iconic image from Graciela Iturbide
Picture from the series “Juchitán” – © Graciela Iturbide

In the interview, Graciela Iturbide says about her relationship with Manuel Álvarez Bravo that he “never was my professor or teacher, but rather a maestro in the broadest sense of the word”. When she accompanied him on his trips out into nature to take photographs, Graciela Iturbide learned by observing the experienced master. What she saw was the process behind the final results – the copies later developed in the darkroom.

She realized that images are not the results of random clicks, capturing seemingly unimportant or isolated moments, but that they are in fact the product of everything the photographer has learned so far throughout his life – not only about photography.

Experiences, believes, or influences all come into play when pressing the shutter of a camera. Even things that at first sight don’t have anything to do with photography can serve as a source of inspiration when it comes to taking pictures.

In the case of Manuel Álvarez Bravo it was listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for example.

Images are not the results of random clicks, capturing seemingly unimportant or isolated moments, but they are in fact the product of everything the photographer has learned so far throughout his life – not only about photography.

Besides teaching her the technical aspects of using a camera and concepts of photographic composition, Graciela Iturbide says that her great mentor has opened her eyes to a whole new world filled with poetry about the cultural heritage of her native country Mexico. For her it’s essential to have a broad background of knowledge and practising different habits (listening to music, literature, painting, drawing, etc.) that in the end nurture the creative process of photography.

In that respect, the most profound impact that Manuel Álvarez Bravo has left on her was not so much teaching her the perfect handling of a camera but rather the ability to make use of her intuition rather than relying on pure reason when taking pictures. And most of all: A photographer needs a lot of patience and must be willing to work hard.

Graciela Iturbide never tried to imitate her maestro Manuel Álvarez Bravo. She watched him very closely and drew her own conclusions about the techniques of photography and his ways of tackling a job that later on served her in developing her own artistic life. She realized that it was better to recognize one’s influences rather than pretend to be original because after all everything has already been photographed.

It’s better to recognize one’s influences rather than pretend to be original because – after all everything has already been photographed.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo gave Graciela Iturbide the impulse to embark on her own artistic journey. He strengthened her passion for photography and provided her with the basic tools for her future work. She says that “the important thing was learning his way of seeing the world which left a deep impression on me”. More than anything it was Bravo’s sensitivity – his way of going to places and people, and to get their pictures “without bothering people” – that has left a profound stamp on Graciela Iturbide as her work about the women of Juchitan clearly demonstrates.

Iturbide admits that to see a master of photography like Manuel Álvarez Bravo work that closely on a daily basis has taught her things she would have never been able to learn in a school. But at a certain point she had to let go and to cut the laces from her mentor. Graciela Iturbide tells that taking what she had learned and putting it into practice – and by that growing as an artist -, was necessary.

Photographer by coincidence:

“I never realized that I wanted to be a photographer.”

Graciela Iturbide’s fascination for photography roots in her childhood. She talks about her dad who had the habit of all the time taking pictures of her family. He kept the images in a drawer that to Graciela Iturbide was like a treasure.

There was something mystical and magical that caught her attention and left a deep imprint on her subconscious, as she confesses: “I never realized that I wanted to be a photographer.”

She’s always been fond of images. Nevertheless Graciela Iturbide started with studying film, instead of engaging into photography. That only happened later by chance when she met Manuel Alvarez Bravo who offered her to be his assistant. That life-changing moment come upon her without having thought about becoming a photographer:

Getting to know Bravo was a gift that just fell into my lap.

Graciela Iturbide

What she loves about photography, says Graciela Iturbide, is the fact that it’s a medium that allows her to work by herself. Something that is impossible in cinema since you need a set of people with different tasks to carry out the shooting of a film. Instead photography is a more solitary job.

For Graciela Iturbide a camera is more than just a machine designed for making images. It is a medium that allows her to learn about the world around her – her country and its culture: “The camera is a good excuse to see the world.”

Graciela Iturbide warns that “photography is not the truth”, but the photographer’s personal interpretation of the world – or the things (objects, people or landscapes) that he takes photographs of. In other words, the images of a photographer represent a synthesis of his character and whatever the scene in front of his lens has provoked him. Graciela Iturbide calls the process of taking photographs “schizophrenic”. She stresses that there are two different ways to view and interact with the world: with a camera and without a camera.

Iturbide also mentions the subconscious side of photography which according to her plays a very important role in taking pictures. Without realizing it, the photographer is guided by his “past” when making decisions, “with the world inside of you”.

So factors such as personal beliefs, emotions, education among others unconsciously influence the process of taking pictures: What will the framing be like? What perspective does one choose? What kind of lighting? Which places to go to in order to realize a shooting? Because of all these factors the photographer is always subject to “surprise” and “the spark of wonder”.

Graciela Iturbide and the special relationship she establishes with her “models”

Complicity with her subjects is fundamental for photographer Graciela Iturbide
Picture from the series “Juchitán” – © Graciela Iturbide
In the case of Graciela Iturbide, she establishes a very close and deep relationship with the people she takes pictures of. She doesn’t go to a place, takes a couple of photos and immediately returns home. Instead she takes the time to get to know well the environment and interacts with its people. The pictures for her book “Juchitán” were taken over a time span of around six years, for example.

Such dedication of time and effort to understand a place and its people in all its dimensions allows Graciela Iturbide to get to the heart of things and visually capture their essence in her images. Thus Iturbide was able to “discover Juchitán through their eyes (of the women living there), but also with mine”.

It’s not only that Graciela Iturbide knows what to focus on, her dedication allows her to find the images and situations that truly represent a certain place and its people. At the same time people open up more when they feel comfortable with the person around taking pictures of them. It’s a different attitude they assume towards the camera which later translates into more intimate pictures. Graciela Iturbide says that it’s about becoming invisible in a community walking around with a camera.

In her “Juchitán” series, Graciela Iturbide achieved that her “models” accepted her and acted normally at the moment of taking the photograph. They felt taken seriously by the real interest shown towards them. That is fundamental. The more genuine the interest is in the circumstances of a given place, the better the photographic result will be.

Graciela Iturbide says that sometimes her interest in a place and the stories of its people prevails over the initial motive of taking pictures.

Graciela Iturbide explains that she’d rather miss a good photograph than to interrupt a conversation with one of the women in Juchitan. She calls “respect” and “complicity” the key ingredients of her relationship with the people she’s taking pictures of.

If you like to read more essays about famous photographers, I recommend having a look at the following: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Nan Goldin, Humberto Rivas or William Eggleston.

What do you consider to be important to develop your own and unique photographic language? Which photographer has inspired you most? Please share your thoughts and ideas.

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