Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

©Graciela Iturbide, Mujer Ángel, Desierto de Sonora (Angel Woman, Sonora Desert), México, 1979. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Graciela Iturbide has made some of the most instantly recognizable iconic photographs from the 20thcentury, images that seamlessly blend a documentary tradition with a deeply mythological resonance. At this stage of a career that spans five decades, Iturbide enjoys the embrace of critics, curators, and publishers. It is safe to say she is a beloved figure – so beloved that her life and work are the subject of a graphic novel. Iturbide has reached that rarified space where critical and popular attention are speaking politely to each other at the same party.

Curator Kristen Gresh at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has shaped Iturbide’s vast output with a 140-image survey, on view through May 12, that is both inclusive and tightly focused. Structured in nine thematic groupings, the exhibition presents rarely seen photographs that Iturbide made in the late 1960s while studying with Mexico’s most revered photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo; revelatory work with the Zapotec people in Juchitan; savage yet graceful images of an annual goat slaughter among the Mixtec people; and more recent spare and haunting photographs of interiors from Frida Kahlo’s home.

©Graciela Iturbide, Los pollos (Chickens), Juchitán, México, 1979. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Using a medium-format camera and black-and-white film, Iturbide photographs her subjects, primarily women, in a straightforward manner. But what and who she photographs is essential; one senses a vital, collaborative connection between photographer and subject that acknowledges the reciprocity of creation. This becomes evident through several of Iturbide’s contact sheets on display, which reveal her playful interaction with her subjects.  Girl with a Hair Comb(1979), from the Juchitan series, shows a woman standing in front of a dark doorway with her back to us, wrapped in a white towel. A large comb floats in her glistening hair, and a round stone rests at her feet. The photograph documents the quotidian while suggesting the enigmatic choreography of everyday life.

While Alvarez-Bravo may be the patriarch of Mexican photography, the image of Mexico has been shaped by many non-native photographers: Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Cartier-Bresson, to name just a few, who perceived Mexico as a theater of extremes – a place of noble peasants, inscrutable beauty, and terrible poverty. Although Iturbide’s vision is more nuanced, in some ways her images echo the exoticism of the outsider; there are few signs of modernity in her Juchitan photographs for example, she crops out any hint of cars, telephones, or televisions. This helps create the timeless aura that suffuses many of her projects, which is both seductive and somewhat misleading. But, as the title of this exhibition makes explicit, this is Iturbide’s Mexico, in which she is part ethnographer, part witness, part weaver of mysteries.