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A Mexican woman in traditional Indian garb, loose long hair swaying, strides past stone outcroppings toward the Sonora Desert, like a pilgrim or wanderer, except that she’s carrying what was called in 1979, when the picture was taken, a ghetto blaster, like a valise bearing new voices to some desiccated borderland. We see her from behind, so the face doesn’t tell us how to interpret motive or mood. The photograph’s visual information fuses to opaque, unexplained myth about journeying ancient and modern.

A young Tijuana man’s naked back, seen in extreme close-up, bears a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe: that inscription of the sacred (tattooing is a form of writing) declares a weird, mixed piety having to do with Mexican, specifically cholo, identity, along with irrational religiosity, attitude, manhood rites, and mother worship. The photograph’s title: La frontera (The Border).

Haciendas in northern Oaxaca hire Mixtec Indians to slaughter goats. Honoring a tradition that dates to an unremembered time, an animal from each herd is preserved alive and crowned with flowers. A young man then lifts the goat on his shoulders and dances. In a 1992 photograph of such a slaughter, a wildly beautiful, barefooted Anna Magnani type is skinning a goat, a knife clenched in her teeth, her skirt soaked with its blood. Sacrificial ritual rooted in pre-Columbian culture and raw sweaty sexuality spill one into another.

These are three of an easy dozen images I could cite to argue, as if she needed it, that Graciela Iturbide is one of the great photographers of the past half-century. Each comes from portfolios Iturbide has compiled during the last 30 years, and over 150 of her photographs, taken in Mexico and the United States, make up an exhibition currently at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles. The title of that first picture, Mujer ángel (Angel Woman), bespeaks how this photographer blends the sacred and secular in settings that can seem as remote and other as ancient Mycenae. She’s a purveyor-archivist of phenomena that, in a global culture less mechanized and materialistic than our own, would inspire the creation of mystery cults. Even when she’s photographing a familiar natural sight, a squall of black birds gusting from tree boughs, we feel the frontal force of some mystery of the separate orders of being.

Born in 1942 to a well-off family and schooled in a convent, Iturbide married when she was 20 and within eight years had three children. Nineteen seventy marked a momentous turn: her young daughter died in an accident, her marriage ended, and, while enrolled in the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, her teacher and mentor, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, the most famous Mexican photographer of his time, hired her as his assistant. He helped her develop impeccable craft and encouraged her — at a time when foreigners like Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Tina Modotti had already adopted Mexico as a subject — to pursue indigenous material.

The goat slaughter takes place in La Mixteca in northern Oaxaca. Way south of there, in the small city of Juchitán de Zaragoza, a very different culture exists, the most purely indigenous and matriarchal community in Mexico, famous for the social, political, and economic independence of its Zapotec women, who favor the traditional dress worn by that desert angel, a long skirt and the short patterned blouse called a huipil. And what women they are! They put heft back into all the clichés about big, strong women. The Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska explains why males are best not to mess with them: “Man is a kitten between their legs, a puppy they have to admonish, ‘Stay there.’ ” The most familiar picture from Iturbide’s Juchitán series, which ponders the feminine in all stages and stations of life — infants, transvestites, virgin teens, crones, dwarves — is Our Lady of the Iguanas, an up-from-under shot of a woman who brought iguanas to the public market. (Iguana stew is a Zapotec delicacy, and the iguana figures in their myths and folklore.) She wore to market a crown of live critters on her head (after sewing shut their jaws) and then put them on the ground to sell. In one of those instants photographers learn to wait for, though the waiting usually entails exposing as much film as possible, Iturbide snapped the picture the moment the majestic broad-browed woman and her prehistoric consort all tipped up their chins. She looks like a risen, mythic queen of some underworld, and she looks exactly like what she is, a vendor displaying her wares.

Iturbide says she isn’t interested in religion as such but is very much interested in the palpable presence of the gods among certain peoples. Her stated intent is “to photograph the most mythological aspects of people; I don’t believe in anything, but I seek rituals of religion, the heroes of religion, the gods.” The gods and the life of the tribe are often associated with animals, a primal relatedness the western industrialized world has mostly lost or forgotten. I don’t want to mislead: Iturbide’s images aren’t exhibits of anthropological curiosity. While her pictures teem with anthropological information, she doesn’t simply document cultures. Iturbide seeks those “heroes of religion, the gods” from within these societies. She doesn’t put us at a testimonial remove from her subjects, no matter if she’s working in Texas, Tijuana, the American South, Los Angeles, or Oaxaca; her seeking eye moves and glides amidst it all. She records cultural dynamics from the inside out. To her eye, nature and culture aren’t pretty or adorable, and the consistency and steadiness of her gaze are amazing. She watches for life lived close to death and makes us feel she’s on the prowl for what’s sacred and terrifying.

In Danza de la cabrita (The Goat Dance), her portfolio of slaughter culture, she rubs right up against the membrane of ancient practice and savage (I use the word not to degrade but to exalt) observance. She shows us, as if snagged in the corner of her vision, goatskins stretched on trees like trapped kites. She practically puts us on top of a just-skinned, dirty-marble carcass hanging from a dark, bloody hand that holds a knife. This series sets off all kinds of associations, especially of slaughter as sacrifice to appease gods. It’s festive (the dancing boy) and restorative (one animal spared and crowned), but blood’s everywhere in The Goat Dance: in a heap of just-slaughtered animals, stockings of blood wash down over their hooves. For many indigenous societies, observance of blood rites helps a people to keep their community sane and prevent its soul from becoming deranged. Iturbide’s images aren’t shocking, they just contain a given ferocity and violence necessary to preserving something whole.

The cholos she photographed in East L.A. have their rites, too, but in Iturbide’s images of young men and women (and their babies), the rituals have come partly unstuck from the kind of ancient underground stream of meaning preserved among the peoples of La Mixteca and Juchitán. The women of Juchitán have their traditional dress, and the 1980s gang-bangers of East L.A. have their own costume — jeans, sleeveless T-shirts, sometimes hairnets, always tattoos. They and their girls flash gang signs, and in one picture so does, or so it seems, a babe in arms. Approve or not, that’s community. If there’s something missing in all this, it’s that the culture the photographer presents is more caught up in display than in piety or observance. The tattoos, the custom-job muscle cars, the hard-case attitude — so many of the Zapotecas look happy: the barrio toughs work hard to look like severe, closed-down outsiders — all involve decorative surfaces. Though even this culture reveres its own back-in-the-day traditions, especially the zoot-suit pachuco culture of the 1940s that bursts from beautifully orchestrated murals its self-styled successors sometimes pose against. “I insist on astonishment,” Iturbide says. Yes, indeed. Her goat and Juchitán pictures have prepped us to see past the hand signs and affectless stares to the skeleton and blood-fed tissue under the skin.

The “Flatlands” portfolio that resulted from a trip through the American South shows off Iturbide’s formalist gifts in the wooly half-tones of a haystack, or a farm-stand backed by mealy gray skies. In our South she finds her Mexico, in local cultures like cigar-making and beekeeping. In North American settings she’s still seeking her gods. She makes scrappy landscapes in Mississippi and Louisiana look like the cactus gardens she photographed in Mexico City for her El Jardín (The Garden) series. And her ongoing inquiry into feminine presence and power results in a shot of another poster icon, Marilyn Monroe, “overseeing” through window glass an American boy. Though it contains many representative images and portfolios, this exhibition is really just a sampler of the achievement of one of the most steady, incorruptible artists of our time.

Danza de la cabrita: Fotografías de Graciela Iturbide (The Goat’s Dance: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide)
J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
Through Sunday, April 13. For additional information, call 310-440-7300.

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