Graciela Iturbide was a young mother when she lost her six year old daughter. It was shortly after that tragic loss that she turned to photography, eventually studying with Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Mexico’s most famous photographer.
Bravo took her under his wing. His work was determinedly not picturesque, political or stereotypical, common fare in mid-20th century photography. He found his voice in the every day, in the commonplace. Iturbide describes Bravo setting up his tripod in a field and then just waiting for something to happen. “There is always time for the pictures you want,” he told her. Hay tiempo. There is time.
Following in the Bravo ethos, Iturbide went on to become another of Mexico’s great photographers, finding meaning and transcendence in the every day of her complex, multi-cultural country. Over a five decades long career, Iturbide became an expert at allowing immortal moments to come to her camera’s eye. Hay tiempo.
An Iturbide photograph has an empathy that does not manipulate; that stuns the eye with its strength without being exploitative; that speaks with an authenticity that is far from the artistic self consciousness that often inflicts itself on a work of art. Iturbide spent time living among indigenous people, explored the Indian/Hispanic rituals and festivals that are held all over Mexico, wandered through cities and deserts, observed the forms of birds and botanicals, and encountered death in its many forms, human and otherwise. Iturbide takes time to find each of her photographs. She also takes the time to stay present with these moments when they come her way.
More than 125 of her photographs are on display at the MFA in Boston in Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico. I have visited the exhibit three times. Yes, I bought a copy of the catalog (it is excellent.) And yes, I could choose to sit at home and continue exploring this collection that feels so honest, unstaged and free of judgment. But making that pilgrimage—the museum is a 20 minute walk from my home—feels like the right way to be with her work. They are in stark contrast to the formalist mastery on display in Postwar Visions: European Photography, 1945–60, an exhibit in a gallery nearby. Iturbide uses her camera with a very different intent. Rather than seeking for perfect blacks and technical bravado, she creates a language of empathy from imagery that is elementally Mexican and elementally her own. Her photographs transcend their subject matter. Breathtakingly so.
Parallels to Iturbide’s way of working have come to my mind recently with a few other forms of expression. Keith Hamilton Cobb has had a lifelong love for Shakespeare, but he found casting options severely limited because he is an African American actor. “Play Othello” is not the answer, thank you. The essential tension of “loving Shakespeare while not Anglo Saxon” drove Cobb to create American Moor, a one person tour de force performance sponsored by ArtsEmerson that fearlessly unpacks the Bard, theater, race, dramatic tradition and institutionalized prejudice. American Moor is deeply personal and yet it is a shoe that fits anyone who has been locked out of a dream because of race, gender, appearance, education, background, connections or money. Cobb worked on American Moor for over eight years, workshopping and fine tuning it to achieve a taut, highly polished 90 minutes. Come from the heart and give it time. Hay tiempo.
Indecent, currently being performed at the Huntington Theater, is another “come from the heart and give it time” story. Paula Vogel first read Shalom Asch‘s play, God of Vengeance, while she was a graduate student. The inclusion of a love scene between two women—written by a Polish, Jewish, married man in 1907—astounded her. “To this day I have not read as beautiful a scene between two women, one that accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.”
Twenty years later, Rebecca Taichman read the same play and was also stunned by its boldness. Taichman was compelled enough to explore staging a performance about the obscenity trial that took place in 1923 when God of Vengeance was performed on Broadway after years of being well received all over Europe (American prudery, painfully perennial…) At some point Vogel and Taichman connected and combined their efforts. They worked on bringing this project forward for seven years. Indecent, written by Vogel and directed by Taichman, was the result.
Indecent won Taichman a Tony award for direction, and deservedly so. The deftness of the production is masterful as this metatheatrical “play within a play” never loses its narrative thread. The performance begins with an open stage, the troupe of actors seated in repose at the back. As the play begins they come back to life, sand falling from their sleeves. It is a haunting reminder of lives lost and devastated by antisemitism and the wars in Europe. Klezmer musicians break out their instruments and so begins a music-filled, Brechtian, tragic journey that spans 40 years. We follow the characters across multiple countries, continents, languages and roles. Taichman seamlessly threads these many transitions and ends the play with a redemptive and passionate love scene, the one that has been the throughline from the very beginning.
Like American Moor, Indecent is rooted in a personal story. An African American man who wants to be able to play all of Shakespeare. Bringing love between two women to the stage, to be celebrated in theater and in life. A photographer finding solace by observing her world with tenderness. My story. Your story. Our story.
Henry Skerritt, an aboriginal art historian, addresses the challenges that face the sustainability of human life. There has never been a more urgent call for artists to imagine new “world-pictures,” he writes: “Ones that imagine our shared predicament as the diverse occupants of the same planet. To meet the needs of our present, such world-pictures must necessarily be both local and global; they must be planetary in scope but human in scale; they must balance the big with the small.”
Finding the truth of one’s self is not easy. Hay tiempo. But when it does come into an exquisite form, all of us—the “diverse occupants of the same planet”—can hear and see ourselves as well.
Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)
Indecent (Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson)