“Photography in Mexico” at the Bakersfield Museum of Art

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Graciela Iturbide
La Nuestra Senora de las Iguanas, Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico
(Our Lady ofthe Iguanas, Juchitan, Oxaca, Mexico), 
1979
Graciela Iturbide, Gelatinsilver print, 17 5⁄16″ x 14 7⁄16″
Photo: Collection SFMOMA, gift of the artist
©Graciela Iturbide

Selected from the permanent collection of SFMOMA, “Photography in Mexico” is organized chronologically, beginning in the post-Revolutionary era of the 1920s and ending in the present. Because it spans so many decades, the exhibit offers a fantastic overview of 20th century photographic genres, including the formalist aesthetic of Tina Modotti, the sensationalistic tendencies of photojournalism, and the quirky “real-ness” of street photography. However, once the visual feast of extreme close-ups-tightly cropped to the point of abstraction-or dreamy lighting effects wears off, the viewer is left to ponder: what does it mean to be Mexican? Is there a singular Mexican identity? The success of this exhibit is not that it frames these questions, but that it refuses to answer them.

All of the photographers attempt to avoid stereotyping Mexican-ness, primarily by capturing known subjects in unknown ways and vice versa. The poor are dignified, the wealthy appear silly, and the ordinary becomes surreal. Héctor García, for example, photographed Frida Kahlo-the woman
famous for her Aztec goddess-like self-portraits-in a very tired, unglamorous state. Positioning the camera low so that we look up at a woman carrying six iguanas on her head, Graciela Iturbide gives Iguana Lady (La Nuestra Senora de las Iguanas, Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico; 1979) a saintly appearance, proudly wearing her reptilian crown of thorns. A great example of how these images work together to refrain from portraying Mexican identity as “other,” Iguana Lady is hung next to the very sensitive, very relatable Caricia (1989)-Mariana Yampolsky’s moving portrait of a woman embracing a child. This push/pull of strange/familiar continues in the work of Lourdes Grobet, who explores professional wrestling as specifically embodying Mexican (though not exclusively masculine) identity, as seen in India Sioux in Her Bedroom, Mexico City (1983).

While the exhibit as a whole highlights the diverse peoples of Mexico, an interesting subcategory of the collection is “Mexico as site.” Several contemporary photographers take an environmental approach, examining the effects of over-population. Pablo López Luz’s aerial views of Mexico City capture rolling hills of nothing but housing. That the series is in color is ironic, since smog blankets the massive city in a nearly monochromatic gray/brown haze. The effects of this urban sprawl are magnified by cropping out the horizon. In contrast, Edward Weston offers the viewer a purely aesthetic experience with his stunningly formalist landscape Janitzio, Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico (1926; printed 1946). Once again, the exhibit resists presenting Mexico as a singular, know-able place.

—REBECCA WELLER