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Encore: Paris exhibit looks back on Graciela Iturbide's photographs

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An exhibition of the works of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide runs through the end of May in Paris. The iconic photographer, now almost 80, was first known for her portraits of Indigenous peoples. She later traveled to photograph Chicano communities in Los Angeles and transgender people in India before changing her focus again. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley got the chance to sit down with Iturbide, who makes a strong first impression.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Draped in an elegant black cape, Graciela Iturbide greets me with warm words and a twinkling, observant gaze. Born in 1942 in Mexico City, where she still lives today, this emblematic figure of Latin American photography says she happened upon her life's work quite accidentally. She had wanted to study literature and become a writer, she tells me through an interpreter.

GRACIELA ITURBIDE: (Through interpreter) But in my bourgeois family, it was just not possible at all for a woman to go to university in the '60s. So I felt very frustrated.

BEARDSLEY: Iturbide married young. But after her kids grew a little, she went back to night school to study cinema. Well-known photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo was giving classes. Bravo had made a name for himself in the '20s and '30s working with muralist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Iturbide says she got lucky and became his apprentice in the early '70s.

ITURBIDE: (Through interpreter) He opened, I would say, the wonders of the world to my eyes. And he gave me the opportunity to discover my country and then the rest of the world.

BEARDSLEY: When talking about being a successful photographer, Iturbide quotes another icon, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

ITURBIDE: (Through interpreter) Henri Cartier-Bresson said - I had the great luck of meeting him in Paris. He said that there was one decisive moment when you are a photographer, and it is the moment when you actually seize your camera and take the picture.

BEARDSLEY: Whatever the camera, success depends on the eye behind it, she says, and passion, dedication and discipline.

ALEXIS FABRY: Personally, I have a very emotional relation to Graciela.

BEARDSLEY: That's Alexis Fabry, curator of the Cartier Foundation for Modern Art, which is hosting the exhibition.

FABRY: There's a word some people use in relation to her work that I think is not a bad word. It's anthropoetry - that very subtle oscillation in her work between something that could be anthropological and something that is poetical.

BEARDSLEY: Fabry says this exhibit traces Iturbide's slow journey from people to abstraction, uniting herself with nature, objects and animals. Iturbide says her interests changed in the years, partly because drug wars made it difficult to travel to Indigenous regions. Instead, she decided to focus on human beings' relationship with objects.

ITURBIDE: (Through interpreter) I think we are accompanied with gardens, mountains, objects, you know, and stone. I mean, the stones were the first thing that actually arrived, in a way, after the Big Bang. And I'm very interested in everything that has to do with life, with everything that surrounds us.

BEARDSLEY: The retrospective at the Fondation Cartier brings together more than 200 of Iturbide's images from around the world, spanning her work from the 1970s to the present.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "QUOTIDIAN DEBRIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.