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Mexican photographers’ rainbow of B&W work


Chicago Suntimes (07/20/2003)
Mary Houlihan

Nine prominent Mexican women photographers from three generations create a stunning summit of talent in the exhibit “El Ojo Fino/The Exquisite Eye.”

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 5 at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, features black-and-white images by Lola Alvarez Bravo, Kati Horna, Mariana Yampolsky, Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduno, Yolanda Andrade, Alicia Ahumada Salaiz, Angeles Torrejon and Maya Goded. It was organized by the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

“El Ojo Fino” came together in a very natural, organic way, reports Wittliff Gallery curator Connie Todd. But it wasn’t until she began to install the show at Texas State in 2000 that she felt something “very special” was happening.

“ What emerged was a kind of force,” Todd said. “The photos seemed to gather an energy, to work better as a group than individually. Even though they are all very strong artists in their own right, you could see how they fed off each other.”

Bravo led the way in the ’20s and ’30s, working alongside her husband, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, considered the dean of Mexican photographers. She made a living on her own as a photographer, which was not the norm for Mexican women in those days.

The Mexican photographic aesthetic was shaped by the allure of a country that is both ancient and modern, simple and complex. Some of the images on display are edgy and gritty, others are lyrical and poetic; all exude a sense of mystery. Many tell stories that are deeply rooted in the traditions and multilayered identity of Mexico.

This is especially true of Iturbide, who comes as close as anyone to capturing the heart and soul of her country, Todd believes. On display are two classic Iturbide images: “Our Lady of the Iguanas,” in which a woman wears a crown made up of lizards, and the disconcerting “Angel Woman,” which shows a country woman seemingly from another era floating down a mountain with a boom box dangling from one hand.

Through their work these women photographers form a closely knit community. The similarity of their technique--black-and-white, untoned, straight-ahead photography--helps define and connect the work. While there are nods to one another in style, each photographer is drawn to her own particular subject: Torrejon is drawn to the political; Goded to studies of women; Andrade to life in Mexico City; Ahumada to geographic landscapes.

It is an interesting dichotomy, Todd said. “While the work is all different, there is a kinship, a sisterhood here that ties it all together,” she said. “They share a distinct vision that sets them apart from the rest of the photography world.”

Following is a quick rundown of the artists represented in the exhibit:


Generation 1

Lola Alvarez Bravo: The first woman in Mexico to become a professional photographer, she was an inspiration for those who followed. Though she was a much in-demand portraitist, it is her documentary photography and photo collages that have formed the bulk of her legacy. Bravo died in 1993.

Kati Horna : Horna studied photography in her native Hungary and chronicled the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s for various publications. In 1939, she and her first husband, artist Jose Horna, moved to Mexico City. She was drawn to the work of the Surrealist art movement, so her work often has an abstract, dreamlike quality; she is credited as a pioneer in Mexican series photography. Horna died in 2000.

Mariana Yampolsky: A Chicago native and graduate of the University of Chicago, Yampolsky moved to Mexico in 1948 and later became a citizen. An engraver and graphic artist, she was the first women to join Taller de Grafica Popular (Popular Graphics Arts Workshop). In the ’50s, she began experimenting with photography, creating images of Mexico’s countryside and its indigenous people, as well as folk art, architecture and folk rituals. A classic documentarian, she once said her goal was to “photograph Mexicans and whatever their hands touched.” When Yampolsky died in 2002, her archive included 60,000 negatives.

Generation 2

Graciela Iturbide: Many see Iturbide, a popular photographer in both Mexico and the United States, as a documentary photographer. But in a 1999 interview with the Sun-Times, Iturbide said she was uncomfortable with this tag. “In a way my work is documentary. But I am also a photographer who has a distinct style. My photographs are a companion to the reality of the situation.”

Flor Garduno: Married to a Swiss journalist, Garduno produces work that is quite elegant but a bit more calculated and removed from the usual Mexican subject matter.

One 1983 image, “Water,” included in the show, serves as the photographic equivalent of a Paul Gauguin painting of a South Seas beauty in a tropical setting.

Yolanda Andrade: Probably the least known of the group, Andrade studied photography in the United States in the ’70s, and later in Mexico, was a still photographer for Mexican film companies and a free-lance magazine photographer. She has long chronicled life in Mexico City and developed a gritty, edgy style that is sometimes dark and disturbing.

Alicia Ahumada Salaiz: A self-taught photographer, Salaiz is known for sculptural landscape studies of particular Mexican geographic regions. She also is building a reputation as an incisive street photographer.

Generation 3

Angeles Torrejon: The most overtly political of the group, Torrejon has dedicated her career to social causes. Her politically charged photos ache with a sense of emotional immediacy. She produced a photographic study of women and children in Chiapas during the Zapatista uprisings and photographed the daily routine of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Maya Goded: The central figures of Goded’s portraits are, more often than not, women. She is one of the younger generation to focus on series photography, such as her searing images of the black experience in Mexico. She also worked for seven years documenting the lives of prostitutes in Mexico City’s notorious Merced district. On a lighter note, Goded also has focused her camera on the city’s many beauty shops.