Barcelona-born Isabel Muñoz dreamt of being a dancer until, in her twenties, she discovered an even bigger passion: photography. She moved to Madrid in the early 80s to capture the city’s frantic cultural awakening, later going to New York to study with John Wood. Still captivated by dance, from 1990 she travelled from Havana to Beijing, and from Istanbul to Rio, photographing different companies and discovering during the process the analogy between local dances and ancestral rituals. Muñoz has published several books and has exhibited in Miami, Berlin and Paris. It is the latter where she is holding her latest show at the Galerie Seine 51, and AnOther caught up with the fiery artist to talk dance, urban culture and sacred rites.
What new works does this exhibition unveil?
The whole exhibit is an analysis of man’s relationship with nature. Last year I travelled to Papua New Guinea and lived with different tribes in the jungle for almost a month: I was fascinated by the way they mimicked nature in everything they did, painting their bodies with dirt and using plants and feathers as clothes and headpieces with unquestionable elegance, even moving like birds. I wanted to capture this sacred, almost spiritual liaison as realistically as possible, so I used colours in most pictures, which is rare for me.
Your images document primitive tribes from all around the globe as well as contemporary urban culture. How are they related?
They are both driven by the need to express themselves through clothing, ornament and their own bodies. Tattoos intrigue me particularly. For years I researched clans who use their skin to tell tales, from Africa to Australia, before discovering urban tribes who do exactly the same, often recounting stories of gangs, violence or jail. So what began as an anthropological interest for me turned into a social concern; but even if the circumstances are different, the underlying idea is the same: that a person’s body is an open book in which he can relate his own life story.
Are the dances and rites you photograph part of a sacred realm?
Dance is mostly a pretext to explore rites, and both things are essential to us as human beings: they define our past and our identity. Through them we give sense to our obsessions and doubts; they are the expression of what is sacred. As a Spaniard, rites and rituals are of course very important parts of my life, and I think it’s important to maintain them, especially in today’s uncertainty. Obviously they should change with the times, but always nurturing their roots. I am just coming back from a trip to Bolivia where I have discovered a whole new world of sacred rites during the Día de los Muertos celebrations: shamans, yatiri healers, feather art and, of course, dance… needless to say I have fallen in love with the country.
"Dance is mostly a pretext to explore rites, and both things are essential to us as human beings: they define our past and our identity. Through them we give sense to our obsessions and doubts; they are the expression of what is sacred."
Is photographing movement or dance more challenging than taking a still picture?
Dance has always been my biggest passion, so photographing it feels very natural to me. A moving body is magical, but dance is so much more than just movement or show business, it is a way of life. Dancers have a particular perception of their own anatomy and they tend to express their feelings very strongly through body language. In that sense they are emotionally very generous whenever they pose for me; so capturing love, dignity or sensuality comes surprisingly easily through dance.
Is it possible to bring a fresh point of view when photographing traditional dances such as flamenco or tango, which are often depicted in clichéd ways?
Most of the time the cliché is in the context: the costumes, the landscape... I try to get rid of those often distracting elements and focus on details like hand movement to capture the essence of dance. I work in a very narrative way, finding a story behind every image and isolating it; I like to think by doing that I am truly able to catch the energy that surrounds ritual dances such as tango or flamenco while giving the viewers the freedom to interpret my images their own way.
Most of your pictures are shot in black and white. Are colours also a distraction for you?
I even mentally transform everything I see into black and white! There is a timeless, mysterious quality to the contrast of those two colours that is incredibly enticing. Poetry and dreams are easier to convey through black and white, at least for me. Full-on colour brings a more documentary quality to images, which is sometimes necessary as well, and I do use it whenever I explore anthropological or social issues. A few years ago I documented drag queens in Madrid through a series of snapshots that could never have been black and white; colour was so much part of the subject. Ultimately, the decision is up to the photographer. Although I do confess I often have full-on colour images transformed into black and white.
The texture in your images is very similar to that of mid 19th century photographs, how do you get this effect?
I actually use the same developing process as early photographers did, working with platinotype, an emulsion in watercolour paper. Contrast between black and white is a lot more intense with this technique, skin seems to take on a whole new texture, and with today’s technology it is possible for the first time to use platinotype on big formats, which takes detail to a whole new level. I work from the negatives in my own studio to monitor all aspects of the developing process. I’m a bit of a technique geek.
Isabel Muñoz, Galerie Seine 51, Paris, until December 8 2012.
Text by Marta Represa