Evoking the Past, Present and Future
The work of Mexican native Flor Garduño evokes the past, the present, and the future all in one frame. Her sensual and elegant, black and white photography references Mexican folklore, and recalls ancient rituals, tradition and mysticism. Garduño’s celebrated portraits are not only an appreciation of natural beauty, but also make an effort to explore social and cultural complexities of her own country’s history.
She was born in Mexico in 1957, and, when she was 5 years old, her family moved to a farm in rural Mexico. Being surrounded by nature, animals, and local traditions had an instrumental influence on her character and interests while growing up. Garduño studied visual arts at the Academy of San Carlos (UNAM) under Hungarian photojournalist Kati Horna, whose surrealist style shaped the development of her own artistic aesthetic. In 1979, she left her studies to become a darkroom assistant to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who is regarded as one of the foremost Mexican photographers. Garduño credits Bravo for teaching her to be focused, refined and critical of her own work. Following her experience as an assistant, her travels to the Mexican countryside to photograph rural communities in 1981, while working at the Department of Public Education, was deeply influential to her life.
A Deep Connection to Indigenous People
From this point forward, the work of Garduño began to convey a deep connection to the marginalized life faced by the country’s indigenous people. Her photography references traditional Mexican life, its iconography and folklore, intricately blended with the powerful and delicate study of the female body.
Mesmerizing and multilayered, the often surrealist yet elegant photography of Flor Garduño presents the beauty of her link to the traditions of native culture. On Garduño’s choice of subjects, writer Sylvia Wolf wrote;
“Garduño wanted to offer an homage to the peoples of the Americas, especially the most ancestral and isolated from Western civilization.”
Her images, besides their aesthetic beauty, also act as sites to create awareness for the viewer through an artistic medium. Agua, Valle Nacional, Mexico photographed in 1993 for example shows and Oaxacan woman, partially nude, submerging herself in a waterfall. Oaxaca is home to 16 indigenous sects, presenting an incredibly biodiverse environment, but is unfortunately also among the five highest ranking areas in the world for endangered plants and animals.
The Individuality in Each Sitter
Her choice of setting, the studio, on the other hand, allows a neutral territory for both the photographer and the subject; it is a meeting point of human encounter. Always shooting film, Garduño reflects her own, dignified understanding of and connection to the diverse cultures of Central and South America and the people whose ancestors were indigenous to the region. The misty haze, always present throughout her black and white work, further enhances its mystical and timeless aura. Blacks appear inky and greyed, whereas whites appear soft, highlighting the mysterious feel of the image. Her models are specifically friends and people familiar to her. She looks for the individuality in each sitter and their imperfections give them character.
Recalling Irving Penn’s Portraits of Indigenous People
In referencing Garduño’s portraits, we recall Irving Penn’s 1948 series of portraits of the indigenous people in Peru. Both series are intimate studies that use a raw studio space, extracting the subjects from their natural, traditional habitats and placing them in a neutral environment. While Penn pays the utmost attention to preserving the identities of his sitters, we see that Garduño instead obscures her subjects by blending in elements of nature from Mexico, such as long leaves and blossoming flowers. Garduño’s photographs in return create an all encompassing aura of femininity, using the nude body as a canvas to convey narrative which surpasses the traditional female representation.
Using the Nude Body as a Canvas to Convey Narrative
La de las Margaritas, for example, shows a female nude lying face down on a rocky landscape, with her body slightly curved to the left and arms extending. Her body is covered with small white flower petals, which are historically accepted to be symbols of youth, innocence and of beauty. The woman’s face is hidden, which directs the eye of the viewer to the torso of her subject. On photographing women, Garduño says;
“Each picture…is a small legend about beauty, sex, wonder, and women’s intimate lives.[…] I use the body to tell stories, to recreate myths, and personal dreams.”
The Connections and Interplay between the Natural World and the Female Form
The connections and the interplay between the natural world and the female form is further apparent in her photograph, Los Limones, which seamlessly blends light and shadow with natural elements and the nude body. As sensual as the portraits are, some, such as Moneda, Suiza, also display the female form as an idealized figure. A woman stands strong and tall with legs hip width apart, holding an oversized sword. The head of the sword obscures her identity completely. Although there is an incredible power to her stance, her identity is taken away by a tool that has long been associated with men, honor and war. Flor Garduño’s work often stems from her rich imagination. They often develop spontaneously in which there is a symbolic connection between the sitters and their environments. Often flowers, fish, or objects often take on a talisman-like symbolism.
The powerful and poetically moving work of Flor Garduño is regarded as a great study of humanity. Her sensitivity to her origins has allowed Garduño to develop a deep connection to nature through the medium of photography. She was awarded the 1992 Kodak Critics’ Photographic Prize for her photobook titled Testigos del Tiempo (Witnesses of Time), which captured the traditions of life and spiritual practices of indigenous groups throughout Latin America. Her work has appeared in a number of international exhibitions and in the collections in respected institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago, The Israel Museum of Jerusalem, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum Ludwig of Cologne, and the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. Garduño currently lives and works in Mexico and Switzerland.