Photographer Flor Garduño’s Sensual, Dreamlike Portraits
Throughout her career, Mexican photographer Flor Garduño has combined sensual femininity with a touch of the impossible. In her nude portraits, photographed in a studio as well as in nature, the female body becomes a site where allegory and history, and the corporeal and the mystical meet.
In Árbol de Cuervos (Tree of Crows) (2017), a nude woman holds a handstand in front of the ocean, a bird perched on each of her feet. In La Mujer Que Sueña (Dreaming Woman, Pinotepa Nacional, Mexico) (1991), an Oaxacan woman stretches out to sleep, her arm folded behind her head. The photograph’s composition recalls Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy (1897), the curvilinear forms of the two iguanas adjacent to her body reminiscent of Rousseau's watchful lion.
“I use the body to tell stories, to recreate myths and personal dreams,” she told The Eye of Photography in 2019. “I have not a sexual motivation when I take pictures of women. It is the working together process, the open-mindedness of the models, the intimacy that makes them blossom as flowers so their most profound emerges.”
Garduño has been photographing for over four decades, and her work resides in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Library of Paris, among many others. In 2016, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego mounted a major retrospective of her work.
Born in Mexico in 1957, her childhood on a hacienda outside of the capital instilled in her a love for nature. Though she missed the peak years that Surrealism flourished in her native country, she is a direct descendent of that lineage. In 1938, André Breton’s stay with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera sparked a decade of creative exchange between Europe and Mexico City. Garduño studied under Hungarian photographer Kati Horna, who was exiled to Mexico in 1939 and was an important member of that Surrealist milieu.
“According to Garduño, the main influence of her maestra would be the fact that she gives free rein to her obsessions, erotic fantasies, secret dreams, and inhibitions,” essayist and educator Concepción Bados Ciria wrote in “Volatile Bodies: The Photographs of Flor Garduño.” Horna, along with artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, made works that centered on traditions of myth, mysticism, and the occult.
That influence can be seen in the references to nature and haunting spirits that Garduño has conjured against the spare backdrop of her studio, through women shrouded by colossal flora or hidden in shadow. In La Aparición, Mexico, (The apparition) (1998), a woman concealed by a black shawl poses partially nude, her pubic region emerging from the structure of a long, white crinoline skirt, her torso demarcating dark from light.
Mythology enters Garduño’s scenes in the form of sensual Greek princess Leda, who grasps the neck of Zeus as a black swan; or the kneeled nude form of Atlas bearing the weight of a small tree instead of the world.
Garduño also assisted the famed 20th-century photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who never formally identified with the Surrealist movement but infused his work with its ideas all the same. Under his guidance, she perfected her darkroom techniques, telling the New York Times in 2016 that “on weekends, we used to make photography side by side.”
Like Bravo and Horna, as well as her predecessor Graciela Iturbide, Garduño has concerned herself with both the unconscious mind and social consciousness, exploring the otherworldly as well as her country’s complex cultural histories.
In the 1980s, Garduño worked under Mexican photographer Mariana Yampolsky in a project for the Secretary of Public Education. The pair visited rural areas in search of topics for bilingual literacy books. Garduño became more familiar with the country’s indigenous communities, and they in turn informed her work. In 1983, she took an early, formative photograph: Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico, (Water), of an Oaxacan woman wrapped in a towel, partially submerged in front of a gauzy waterfall. Two decades later, she photographed Abrazo de Luz, Mexico, (Embrace of Light) (2000), an image of a woman holding the giant stalks of calla lilies in front of her body. The portrait recalls Rivera’s social-realist paintings of indigenous calla lily vendors, their blooms towering above their figures.
“Mexican culture is ancient and rich,” Garduño told The Eye of Photography. “It influences Mexicans in a way that is hard to measure.”
That richness made Mexico a nerve center for photography—through the artists it birthed like Bravo and Iturbide, as well as the outsiders who were drawn in, from Edward Weston and Tina Modotti to Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Two decades before Garduño was born, exiled Guatemalan poet Luis Cardoza y Aragón described the magic that would charge the work of generations of Mexican and European artists, threading through paintings and photographs, and would eventually be harnessed by Garduño. “We are in the land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions,” he wrote. “[A] place for the mutable, the disturbing, the other death, in short, a land of dream, unavoidable by the surrealist spirit.”
Treading the line between the real and the imaginary, the spirit and the self, Garduño beckons viewers in, rendering the mercurial beauty of life and death in flesh and bone.