Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I originally wrote this article for Vogue, about my discovery, as a young photographer, of a gorgeous Deborah Turbeville picture that ran in the magazine in 1975. Since the new novel I am writing now takes place in Mexico in the 1990s, I often think about that time in my life, in my twenties. The portrait of me (left) was taken in Oaxaca in 1994 by the artist Judith Golden.

By Anna Winger

When I was twenty-three, I packed my Rolleiflex, a complete darkroom and two suitcases of summer clothes and moved from New York City to Oaxaca, Mexico. I had just finished college and received a Fulbright to do a photography project about girls’ coming-of-age celebrations there. Having lived in Mexico with my anthropologist parents as a teenager, I was drawn back to the site of my own adolescent transformations.

In those days there was no email or mobile phones and a land-line was almost impossible to come by. Out of touch with family and everyone else at home, I was now free to try on new identities. I wore embroidered huipiles from Juchitán, like Frida Khalo, and kept long-winded diaries that closely imitated Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I smoked cigarettes rolled in sweet rice paper and stayed out late drinking mescal and modeled nude for various local painters. I made lots of new friends. At dusk every evening, the theme song to a popular telenovela starring Eric Estrada came over the wall into my garden: Dos Mujeres, Un Camino. Two Women, One Road. The music struck me as impossibly romantic.

On the weekends, I attended fiestas de quince años all over Oaxaca with my camera. At one, in a nearby village called Xoxo, the quinceañera, dressed head to toe in pink organza, trailed twelve ladies-in-waiting, twelve groomsmen, and me, on the dusty street behind her. At another, in the cathedral downtown, the quinceañera sat miserably between her parents, collapsed under the weight of her elaborate hairdo. I lurked among the pews, trying to capture the moment without calling attention to myself. Although I was blonder and taller than most people in the room, I tried to be invisible. The photographs, after all, were not about me. Through the square frame of my old-fashioned camera, I concentrated on the ritualistic details, hoping to capture something universal about female experience.

There is an art library in downtown Oaxaca, founded by the artist Francisco Toledo, a space half indoors and half out, where you can spend hours with a book in the dappled light of a jacaranda tree. I went there often and pored through their photography collection. Although there were many books of photojournalism and documentary work from all over the world, it was the monographs of fashion photographers like Irving Penn that mesmerized me. Included in a collection of pictures from 100 years of Vogue was one taken in 1975 by a photographer named Deborah Turbeville. Five women pose in bathing suits, in a bathhouse, looking alternately bold and bored, feminist and feminine. An homage to the Ingres paintings of women in Turkish baths, Turbeville’s image is as much an anthropological document about American women in 1975 as it is a fashion photograph. When I first discovered this image, the complex story it told about the evolution of female sexuality both fascinated and intimidated me. I sat in Toledo’s library and stared at it for a long time, contemplating the metaphorical possibilities of a single photograph.

When I learned that Turbeville herself lived in Mexico part of the year, I wrote her a letter. To my surprise, she invited me to come and see her.

San Miguel de Allende is about four hours north of Mexico City. It was a dry, late spring when I went to visit Turbeville there, just before the rains began. The sun on the street was blinding. Stepping into the cool interior of her townhouse, which was built around a courtyard, was like entering an oasis: blue shadows cast on plaster walls, antiques, bougainvillea. Turbeville herself was tall and beautiful, of an indeterminate age (older than me, younger than my mother). She wore flowing clothes offset by serious, bobbed hair.

We had lunch and then she showed me her new work, a project about Mexican woman and religion. As I remember it now, she had covered the wall of her studio with brown craft paper, hung up and down with photographs in old-fashioned, half-broken frames. The images were black and white, out of focus, portraits both of Mexican women and of church statues of the Virgin Mary. Taken as a whole, the wall had the effect of a colonial altarpiece. Turbeville wasn’t simply documenting the local women’s spirituality—she had created a three-dimensional piece that embodied it. When I was in college, I had often complained about the photographs of Mexican women I saw in the United States: covered with serapes, carrying pots on their heads, devoid of sexuality or individual personality. Turbeville’s work transcended those stereotypes. By contrast, I realized then, my own did not.

I looked around the courtyard where we were sitting—there must have been a fountain, because I remember the sound of water, the play of the light. I felt as if I had been transported into one of her photographs. She was the first woman I had ever met who was, literally, living her art.

I fumbled for the right way to express my wonder, and dismay.
“Do you think of yourself as a documentary photographer?” I asked.
She laughed. “I think of myself as an artist. I’m a story-teller. I am interested in people’s lives.”
I pulled out my folder of prints: the girl in Xoxo performing a formal waltz with her father; the girl downtown getting into a carriage shaped like a pumpkin. My pictures captured the mechanics of the ritual, its kitsch maybe, but none of the emotions of coming of age.
“I’m so careful,” I said. “I try not to get in the way. But in the end I feel stuck on the sidelines.”
“Then be less careful.”
“But then I’m interfering with the moment.”
“Says who?”
I listed the names of ten famous photographers and my professors from school. Turbeville handed back my prints.
“Why are you taking other people’s pictures?” she asked me, not unkindly.

The bright sunshine on the sidewalk outside of her house afterwards hit me like the blast of a light bulb going off in my brain: the placement of the frame is always subjective, in photography as in life. After that I didn’t lurk around at parties with my camera. I spoke with the fifteen year-old girls I met. I asked them to choose their favorite clothes and location for their portraits. The process was collaborative: as I looked down into my camera, we talked about their lives and mine, about beauty, about our aspirations. The resulting pictures reflect the intimacy of these conversations. In one, a girl in her catholic school uniform reclines on a garden bench in her parents’ backyard. Although the outfit is childish, the look on her face betrays a knowingness beyond her years. When I look at it now, the picture seems to capture both my subject’s nascent womanhood and my own.

San Miguel is a town so beautiful that it might have been dreamed up, a Disneyworld version of Mexico. After leaving Turbeville's house that day, I walked its streets thinking that if all fiction is a little bit autobiography, then all documentary is a little bit fiction too.

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