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photo-eye Book Reviews: Mexico Roma

Mexico Roma, Photographs by Graciela Iturbide.
Published by RM, 2011.
Mexico Roma
Reviewed by Alexandra Huddleston
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Graciela Iturbide Mexico Roma
Photographs by Graciela Iturbide
RM, 2011. Softcover. 96 pp., 50 illustrations, 6-1/2x8-1/4".

Graciela Iturbide's newest book Mexico Roma feels and looks like one (beautifully designed) volume from a traveler's archive of scrapbooks. However, this is the only volume published. If its companions exist, they are yet to be made. At 6.5 by 8 inches and just 96 pages, it's the size and shape of a journal that would fit easily into a purse or camera case. The cover is a textured, muted powder blue with no photograph, only what looks like an adhesive red-trimmed name-tag (which the artist apparently picked up in Bolivia) stuck in the middle and filled with a handwritten title: "Mexico" for the front side of the book and "Roma" for the back. The interior pages are a thin, rough, creamy stock that has a tactile grace, but one that adds a dark, grainy, and rough quality to the photographs. From what Iturbide has said about the book, the photographs are in fact a highly culled selection from her archives of these two locations, though she pulled the Mexico work from images shot between 1974 and 2009 while the photographs of Rome were all made in 2007.

Iturbide has been working in the medium for over forty years. She always shoots film, primarily black and white, and while she has worked on projects all over the world, her most famous work has been on the life of traditional communities in Mexico. Her latest projects -- including her last book Asor and the publication currently under discussion -- have turned away from documentary subjects. The medium is still beautiful black and white film photography, but now the photographs tend towards a poetic description of place, filled with the signs of human presence, but the absence of actual people.

Mexico Roma, by Graciela Iturbide. Published by RM, 2011.
The book begins with 24 photographs from Mexico. Present are Iturbide's signature birds, but also bees, dogs, ruins, skeletons, constructions sites, bound rocks, Catholic imagery, hats, lonely chairs, demonic wheeled vehicles, holes (maybe bullet holes?) in walls, and other mysterious architectural protuberances. A person of true visual intelligence has sequenced the photographs so what otherwise might feel haphazard becomes a seamless flow. From the back forward begins the story of Rome with another 24 photographs. The birds appear again, but this time cats, kites, sidewalk art, railroads, fallen planets, bugs, dogs, crocodiles, grungy streets and beaches, and imprisoning shadows and vegetation dominate the flow of images. These two sections are linked in the middle by an x-ray of the artist's feet, on which she has had a number of operations.

Mexico Roma, by Graciela Iturbide. Published by RM, 2011.
Which leaves the question, Why? Why Mexico and Rome-not even Mexico City and Rome, but two unequal geographies filled out by an equal quantity of photographs taken over vastly unequal periods of time...and linked by the feet? Iturbide has said that the only connection is her intuition and her eye, which leads us to the quotation that frame the book. The Mexico section begins with a quotation, in Spanish, purportedly said by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma upon first meeting Cortez ("purportedly" because, of course, Moctezuma did not speak Spanish and the only records that remain of his words and actions were written after the fact by the Spanish conquerors). It finishes: "...it is that I have already seen, it is that I have put my eyes in your eyes (Es que ya te he visto, es que ya he puesto mis ojos en tus ojos...)." And isn't that what every photographer, including Iturbide, does through her work? The vision of these two locations she gives us is uniquely her vision. Moreover, it's her vision shot, on average, at eye level and between 2 and 10 feet from her subject...in other words, the perspective of a pedestrian (and one with painful feet). The second quotation, the final stanza in a poem by Francisco de Quevedo, a seventeenth century Spanish poet, aristocrat, and courtier, can equally be taken as an apt description of photography. It ends: "...and nothing but what is elusive stays and will endure (...y solamente lo fugitivo permanece y dura)." The quotations seem to set out Iturbide's philosophy on photography rather than a philosophy for the book.

Mexico Roma, by Graciela Iturbide. Published by RM, 2011.


In the end, this book is exactly what it appears to be: a beautifully designed and beautifully edited scrapbook of a traveler and photographer, linked only by where her eyes and her feet took her over what were surely many miles of pavement. There are many photography books whose only conceptual glue is the artist's 'intuition.' Most of them feel limp and lifeless. Iturbide's intuition towards her native Mexico is rooted in a lifelong knowledge of the place, and her country's half of the book is without a doubt much stronger than Rome's half. However, with its skillful but modest design and presentation, its flawless sequencing, and Iturbide's own evocative symbolic language Mexico Roma manages to please. If there are other volumes to come: Welcome!—Alexandra Huddleston

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Alexandra Huddleston is an American photographer who was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa. She holds an MS in broadcast journalism from Columbia University and a BA in studio art and East Asian studies from Stanford University. In 2007 she was awarded a Fulbright Grant to photograph and research the legacy of traditional Islamic scholarship in Timbuktu, Mali. Photographs from her Timbuktu work have been included in the permanent collection of the US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and exhibited worldwide. Her current work in progress explores a pilgrim’s life along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain and the Shikoku Henro, a pilgrimage of 88 temples on the island of Shikoku, Japan.

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