Born into a traditional Mexican Catholic family in the 1940s, she was expected to become a wife and a mother. And that she did—with a camera in hand. Gifted a camera by her father before leaving home for Catholic boarding school, she began shooting black-and-white film photographs and never stopped.
As a young woman she navigated a brave path, carving through the male-dominated photography scene of the 1970s to become one of the best-known photographers in the world.
Over her long career Graciela has been both filmmaker and photographer, student and mentor and, as she turns 75 this year, she is both artist and subject in a new a graphic biography—a first for Getty Publications—about her life and her story titled Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide.
The drive from the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City to its southern neighbor of Coyoacán takes nearly an hour in morning rush-hour traffic. The wide, tree-lined boulevards slowly narrow the further south you drive. Tucked away in a tightly packed group of streets is the Barrio del Niño Jesús.
Just a block north of an abandoned tennis club—its ten hard courts blistered in the sun, their nets long vanished—is Graciela’s studio. It was only recently completed and her son, an architect, built it for her across the street from her home. Made of red brick, wood, and steel, it feels both very traditional and starkly modern, much like Graciela herself.
On her bookshelves sit copies of her many publications, art books from fellow photographers, artists, filmmakers, and one treasured black-and-white Japanese comic about a hero of hers: photographer W. Eugene Smith. It’s fitting, as her life is now too being transformed into a graphic biography, illustrated by Texas artist Zeke Peña and written by California poet Isabel Quintero.
Zeke Peña has spent the last few months immersed in Graciela’s story. It’s not a surprise that his approach to illustrating her life has much in common with her own sensitive approach to photographing others.
“Looking at a person directly in the eye and asking ‘Can I tell your story? Do I have permission to do this?’ is so important in my practice as an artist. I think it’s so fundamental. It’s simple, but many storytellers don’t take this step,” explains Zeke.
“I interpreted what her childhood home looked like, what her studio looked like, what her father and mother looked like. I really come to her story with respect, with the intent to honor her story with dignity.”
Graciela is delighted with Zeke’s depiction of her. “I like seeing myself as a kid, with my dad telling me, ‘You won’t be able to attend university!’” she says. “My children and my grandchildren have seen it—I love how everyone is portrayed.”
Graciela keeps prints and contact sheets safely tucked away in tidy black boxes from her shoots all over the world—from the deserts of Mexico to Los Angeles to Rome to India. Those contact sheets reveal a glimpse into the truth behind the photographs, and author Isabel Quintero has been reading between the lines in her images since she has written the text for the graphic biography.
Through her words, brought alive by Zeke’s illustration, Isabel reveals Graciela’s struggles to find her voice, to survive loss and loneliness, and to continually find wonder and beauty in the world.
The in-betweenness of Graciela’s work speaks to Isabel.
“I’m constantly in the state of being both American and Mexican, and I think her work is in a state of present and past simultaneously. That really speaks to me, of constantly being in between and searching for a place to stay or a place to exist.”
One of Graciela’s most iconic images is nicknamed “Lady of the Iguanas.” In the image, a woman named Zobeida stands proud, almost defiant, looking into the distance as six iguanas perch on her head, forming a crown.
“We found the contact sheets where the iguana lady photograph lives, and saw that in the frames before and after, Zobeida is laughing,” describes Isabel.
Zeke adds, “You can see the progression of Graciela and Zobedia’s interaction. Graciela is behind the camera, trying to get her to lighten up and be more comfortable. You get the sense they are both laughing, joking around.”
The graphic biography captures some of this playfulness, with the iguanas dialoguing among themselves as the photo is taken.
Isabel is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. “I’m Chicana—Mexican American—and I feel this strong connection to my Mexican heritage. I feel as though I’m in this in-between space culturally.”
Zeke also identifies with feeling in two places at the same time. “Growing up on the border of Mexico in El Paso is something that totally influenced my worldview. I didn’t grow up in Mexico, I’m an outsider to some of the cultures that Graciela photographs. But I think my perspective of feeling like an outsider informs how I approach her work.”
Though Graciela has photographed communities on the fringes of society, she never intended any of her work to be political. “I simply live with people and try to be sure I represent the dignity of those I photograph. I photograph what I live and see.”
Graciela’s photographs have been described as surreal and magical, but she hates those descriptions. To her, color is fantasy. Black and white is real life. She sees the lyricism in her works as poetic, and Isabel—a young-adult fiction author by trade and a poet by calling—sees the poetic qualities clearly.
Graciela says she loves the idea of the graphic biography, that it’s an honor. She is a chronicler of the average person, the worker, the migrant, the pilgrim, the peasant. Her camera reveres its subjects, often making them heroic. A graphic biography has the ability to make Graciela heroic, as well.
“I absolutely think of her as a superhero,” says Zeke. “She’s stayed true to her craft after decades of commitment. That’s inspiring. That’s a true feat to be looked up to.”