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Graciela Iturbide: Eyes To Fly With - Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs; with Elena Poniatowska: Las Soldaderas: Women of The Mexican Revolution - an essay-review.

  • National Book Critics Circle


Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2006 212 pp./$50.00 (hb) In November 2006, honoring its 1910–17 revolution, Mexico was the subject of portraits painted by two artists, working in very different media, whose political differences are as intriguing as their aesthetic similarities. Writer Elena Poniatowska has moved in Mexican artistic circles, writing catalog essays for photographers like Mariana Yampolsky and Juan Rulfo. Photographer Graciela Iturbide is herself a very “literary” artist as much influenced by writers as by other photographers.
afterimage 34.6
In November 2006, to honor its revolution, Mexico had its
portrait painted by two artists working in very different media:
writer Elena Poniatowska, who has written catalog essays for
several Mexican photographers including Juan Rulfo and Mariana
Yampolsky, and photographer Graciela Iturbide, who is as much
inuenced by writers as by other photographers. The political
differences of these two artists are as intriguing as the aesthetic
similarities in their work. This essay will attempt to illustrate what
the artist who creates images made out of words has in common
with the artist who creates words made out of images as well as
how art represents the process of discovering what it means to be
Mexican for each artist.
The isthmus of Mexico, with its vast visual wealth, looms large
upon our common border. Yet work that foreign photographers
like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Steichen did in Mexico
may be better known in the United States than that of Mexican
contemporaries like Iturbide. Eyes to Fly With: Portraits, Self-Portraits,
and Other Photographs gathers representative images from each phase
of what Iturbide calls a photographic “opportunity of discovering
my own country.”1
“Wherever we go,” Iturbide says, “we want to nd the theme we
carry inside ourselves.” She discovered the style of her themes
early on; the 1969 photos are visually consistent with the images
from 2006. Iturbide began exhibiting her work in 1975, after a
fellow Mexican visual artist invited her to the province of Zapotec,
previously visited by Frida Kahlo. There, off and on for six years,
Iturbide composed images of fat, raunchy, liberated women and
drag queens of the pueblo, later collected in Women of Juchitán
(1988), featuring a catalog essay by Poniatowska.
With the exception of images like “The Slaughter” (1992),2 Iturbide’s
admitted preference for long exposures and nuanced grays lends her
work static quality. Some of her photos, commissioned by the National
Indigenous Institute, capture the bridal processions, carnivals, and
burials of Mixtec Indians; cane workers in Morelos; goat butchers
in Oaxaca; campesinos in Puebla; and Seri Indians in the Sonora
Desert. Yet, Iturbide does not consider herself a documentarian of
Mexican ethnology; rather she insists she represents people as they
go about the mythmaking of their day-to-day lives.
Fortunately, certain Latin writers and artists now distance themselves
from the term “magic realism.” Claimant to the legacy of surrealism,
Iturbide conrms that dreams—dreams that trawl the depths of
consciousness with baited hooks, that clamor the portent of paths
untaken—are crucial to her work. The photographer’s mission,
she states, is to invest life with light. At times, among the mangled
corpses, vultures, and other deeply personal “allegories of death,”
the poet’s eye fails her. But Iturbide’s most powerful works—“Lost
Dogs” (1998), starkly silhouetted against the landscape, or “Death
(Tuxtepec, Puebla, Mexico)” (1979), her haunted vigil recalling the
great photo essays of W. Eugene Smith—achieve a visual poetry as
genuine as any in photography.
For Iturbide as for Poniatowska, whose hybrid of straight reporting
and imaginative narrative has come to be known as “testimonial
literature,” the dichotomy between imagination and image is cliché.
A photographer without imagination is,” simply, “not a good
photographer,” writes Iturbide.
Even more striking are the commonsensical remarks of Iturbide in
her in-depth interview with Fabienne Bradu included in the book.
Every page of Eyes to Fly With reveals an artistic sensibility, leathery
tough, like beef jerky. Persevering as an artist, for Iturbide, is about
“showing how you connect what you live with what you dream, and
what you dream with what you do.”
eyes to f ly with: portraits, self-portraits, and other
by graciela iturbide
aust in, texas: university of texas press, 2006
212 pp./$50.00 (hb)
las soldaderas: women of the mexican revolution
by elena poniatowska
el pas o, texas: cinco puntos press, 200 6
80 pp./$12.95 (s b)
ImAges Of The sPIRIT
on January 18 2020 from
afterimage 34.6
Carlos Monsiváis credits Poniatowska with a literary impact
unequalled by a Mexican woman writer since Sor Juana Inés de
la Cruz. Like a lover yearning to “feel Mexico inside [herself],”
Poniatowska has been a passionate devotee of her adoptive country
since the 1950s.3
Poniatowska’s recent book, Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican
Revolution, was published by Cinco Puntos Press in conjunction with
Ediciones ERA and the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology
and History. The catalog essay, accompanied by images from the
Agustín Casasola Archive, revisits the soldaderas (female soldiers)
of the Mexican Revolution. These remarkable women—part pack
mule, part cook, all-purpose concubine—followed and tended camp
for peasant soldiers from 1910 until 1917 as the forces of Pancho
Villa in the North battled those of Emiliano Zapata in the South.
Poniatowska’s text is instructive on several counts. It conrms Virginia
Woolf’s observation that “the second-rate works of a great writer are
generally worth reading . . . [if only] because they are apt to offer us
the very best criticism of [her] masterpieces.”4 Among Poniatowska’s
masterpieces is La noche de Tlatelolco (Massacre in Mexico) (1971)—a
narrative collage of the 1968 student uprisings—written while Iturbide
was still engaged in her apprenticeship to Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
Given the Casasola Archive’s seminal importance as a
photojournalistic document of the Mexican Revolution, Poniatowska
obviously never intended to gloss over the archival material anymore
than Iturbide, who collaborates actively with writers whose texts her
images accompany, conceives of her photos as mere illustrations.
An equally brief introduction to Poniatowska’s body of work, the
epistolary novella Dear Diego (1978) makes a far greater impact. The
following passage, depicting a female painter’s obsession, supports
Mexican critic Christopher Domínguez’s claim that Poniatowska’s
writing is among the best prose in Mexico:
I set myself a schedule … from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., from
1:30 to 5, and again from 8 to 10 at night. Nine hours a day
of painting…. I would eat thinking of how to handle the
shadows of the face I’d just set aside, I wolfed down dinner
remembering the picture on the easel…. When it was time to
eat, it used to annoy me if anybody spoke to me, distracting
me from my thoughts, which were xed on the next line that
had to be sketched and which I wanted continuous and pure
and exact…. I was possessed … and only 20. I never felt tired,
on the contrary, I would have died had anyone forced me to
abandon that life. I avoided the theater, I avoided strolls, I even
avoided the company of other people, because the degree of
joy they gave me was much less than the pleasure, so very
intense, of learning my craft.5
Artistically, through portraits such as “Carlos Monsiváis” (1991),
Iturbide has contributed to both Mexican literature and Mexican
photography. Both she and Poniatowska admit to being fascinated
by the artist-object relationship and by the distancing effect of
composition—literary or visual—on how the eye “frames” life.
Politically, their portraits of rebellion and independence defy
stereotypes of submissively dependent women in Mexican society.
The unrepentant voice of protagonist Jesusa Palancares in Here’s
to You, Jesusa! (Hasta no verte, Jesús mío, 1969), Poniatowska’s vividly
ctionalized, rst-person oral history of Revolutionary-era Mexico,
echoes like an audio track over images like “Cholas” (1986),
Iturbide’s mini-series devoted to Mexican American gangster girls
in East Los Angeles. A committed journalist in a country where
high illiteracy means many writers compete for the attention of
few readers and low demand makes books expensive for vendors
to supply, Poniatowska’s larger purpose has been to bear witness
to the persistent marginalization of disenfranchised Mexicans in
general. Iturbide, on the other hand, wants to make useful art but
is “not trying to change the world.” For both artists, in every way,
unsuspected Mexico, a land of sorrow and sunlight, remains “part
of an ongoing collective project in which we are [all] involved.”6
kevIn bROwn is a literary translator currently working on Mexican poet
Efraín Bartoloméo’s Ocosingo War Diary.
NOTES 1. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Elena Poniatowska’s Eyes to Fly With:
Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press,
2006). 2. See plate in Eyes t o Fly With. See also Image #5670, from Soldaderas. 3. From www. 4. “A Minor Dostoevsky,” The Essays of Virginia Woolf Volume II:
1912–1918 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), 165. 5. My translation. 6. From www.
abov e
From Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution (2006) by
Elena Poniatowska
on January 18 2020 from
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