She has spent three decades photographing Mexicoâs wildly popular professional wrestling, lucha libre, documenting the lives of the fighters inside and outside the ring. The resulting body of work was brought together in a book, which is reproduced in part in this issue of Nuestra Mirada. The excesses, roughness, fragility, and roots of âlucha libreâ are captured by the lens of Lourdes Grobet: an unclassifiable and tireless photographer who lives and works as if she werenât almost 70 years old.
Photos by Lourdes Grobet, text by Sandra Licona
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
Lourdes Grobet is similar to the fighters she photographs. Of course, thereâs no physical similarity. Itâs an attitude: sheâs almost 70 years old but still has the power, vitality, and muscle of a woman of 20. Just a little over 12 months ago, for example, she crossed the Bering Strait, on the trail of the first people to arrive in the Americas. And a few weeks ago she was in Coatzacoalcos (in the east of the country) climbing into a cage, several meters up in the air, despite a gusting wind, with the sole purpose of photographing a sculpture.
But she has a past. As a child, Grobetâs life was very different from what it is today. She was a rich girl from Lomas de Chapultepec (one of the oldest and most exclusive residential areas of Mexico City). She wore a uniform and rode to school in a black Cadillac. Her classes were taught by nuns. She was an athletic girl: her father, a professional cyclist, obliged her to exercise before going to school, a routine that allows Grobet, today, to lead a life without physical setbacks. As a young woman, she was determined to get away from the lifestyle of the upper class.
“I was always rebellious and that saved me from being stuck for my whole life as a good girl,” she recalls. âI never wasted time trying to make money, or getting my own Cadillac.â
First Grobet explored the world of painting. She wanted to be an artist, and her parents allowed her to train at the Universidad Iberoamericana; other schools were âtoo liberal.â There she met someone who would become a major influence: the great Polish painter, sculptor, and architect Mathias Goeritz, promoter of the “anti-academy.”
âGoeritz taught me three things: if art doesnât give pleasure, forget it; never take yourself too seriously; and it isnât necessary to pay any attention to psychoanalysis. I have always followed these rules, so because of that, Goeritz was my great teacher, though not my only one. There was also the Mexican artist Gilberto Aceves Navarro, who taught me how to work without boundaries. And the wrestler El Santo, perhaps the most famous of Mexican wrestlers, who gave me consummate lessons in generosity.â
The time of heroes. How did Lourdes Grobet come to know El Santo? The journey was long, but can be summarized as follows: she started to feel uncomfortable with painting, went to Paris and there discovered kineticism, or the idea of art in motion, and finally she found, in photography, a possibility for expression that interested her. The move from canvases to cameras was irreversible: Grobet returned to Mexico from Paris, burned almost all her paintings, and devoted herself to photography.
Since then it has been difficult to categorize her photography. You can only say that her work doesnât fit into any school, but responds to a single concept: feed the eye.
âIâve never been interested in having someone tell me where I have to go,â she says. âIâve done my work without questioning if I’m good or bad. I donât care if I receive recognition or not, and that has given me the freedom to go wherever I please. I have no need to respond to a trend.â
Grobet has charted her own path, and that anarchic approach put her in some extraordinary situations. Of all of these, one, starting 30 years ago, really caught her attention. It was lucha libre, a Mexican institution that had captivated her since childhood. As an adult, with camera in hand, she found herself in rings, arenas, and public plazas. For three decades, Grobet has pursued and documented the magic that surrounds the lives of the fighters, the originality of their masks and costumes, as well as their unmasked personalities. She established ties with El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, Mascarita Sagrada, Octagon, Los Misioneros de la Muerte, Los Perros del Mal, and Los Brazos, among many others, and so documented what the sociologist Roland Barthes called “the spectacle of excess, the grandeur of the ancient theater.â
With her camera, Grobet has documented this contemporary coliseum, where the basest passions are fed and enflamed. And she hasnât done it only in the ringâwhere the rough temperaments and techniques are only surpassed by the paraphernalia of the personae and the angry shouts from the audience: a jumble of children and adults on the same adrenaline rush as that of their idolsâshe has also taken portraits of the wrestlers in their homes, where you can see a masked wrestler nursing her son.
The audience isnât there just to provide encouragement; they are there to see real people put on costumes and turn into eternally young characters. As the great chronicler of Mexico, Carlos Monsivais, writes in his book, Rituals of Chaos, “A fighter does not age as long as his audience recognizes him.” Itâs a statement that also applies to Grobetâs work: despite the passage of time, each of the protagonists in these photos is still recognized, inside and outside the ring.
“Wrestling embodies an instinct that was left unawakened in me. As a child, seeing the fights on television, they were moments of splendor and leaps, but my parents never wanted to bring me to the arenas. It remained quite an enigma to me; I didnât understand how my father, being a lover of sport, wouldnât take me to lucha libre. Thus that part of me remained dormant. Itâs ironic that years later I have devoted so much of myself to documenting this spectacle, especially when I’ve never been a photojournalist. I’m bad at that sort of photography. Whenever I have been invited to work for newspapers, I say, âThank you, but itâs not me.â I just work another way. I need my time and space to develop the ideas; itâs a more conceptual approach. But the lucha libre work is documentary photography.â
Through her images, Lourdes Grobet has laid bare the rituals and festive atmosphere of lucha libre, part sport, part pageant. She has shown the lives of the masked people earning a living with jobs that help them provide sustenance for their families.
“When I started taking the photos, I realized wrestlers are the projection of the Indian into the city,â Grobet says. âI had promised myself not to take pictures of Indians or to fall into any folkloric bias, but in doing portraits of fighters I found something so deeply of Mexico that it intrigued me. Meeting the fighters gave me another perspective: the one who struck me the most was El Santo. His generosity in dealing with people filled me with joy. I couldnât believe that the most famous man in Mexico had such humility. I hate power, fame, and money because they corrupt people. The only person who broke the hold of fame and never had to be the center of attention was El Santo. Because of that he was my teacher.â
Grobet took the still photographs for one of El Santoâs films and confirmed that he wasnât using tricks. He didnât use a double or strike star poses. And when he finished filming, there were endless lines of people waiting for an autograph. El Santo stood there and signed his name for every last person.
âThe fighters are super generous people, and respectful. When I started I was young and pretty. Nobody ever failed me in that regard. We began to build relationships; we got to know one another. It didnât take much to get into dressing rooms even though the majority of the wrestlers are men. I was spending time in gyms and eventually it was just another part of the job, just like documenting the office in another profession. I was also close to women wrestlers, who are wonderful. There was an incredible identification and also a totally different concept of feminism than we have imported from Western culture.â
Grobet says she is a âbad portraitistâ because she shows people as they are and sometimes people want to be different, better.
âI donât put anyone in a pose. I was invited to their homes, I arrived, sometimes we ate, in fact the mother of Los Brazos was a great cook, and with that feeling of closeness I went to work. Those houses were wonderful. Sometimes people think that I composed the pictures but no, you go and you donât know where to look first, everything is interesting, itâs a marvel of icons and objects. The only thing I asked some of them was that they put on their costume.â
Grobet promised her fighters that she would do a book, and she delivered. In 2005 she published Espectacular de Lucha Libre (Trilce Editions, 2005), an effort that brought together a vast collection of images. Grobet has had more than 20 solo shows between 1970 and 2009 and put out other books including, Se escoge el tiempo (1983), LuciĂ©rnagas (1984), Bodas de Sangre (1987), and Lourdes Grobet (2004).
The rough corner. Had she not been a photographer Grobet says she would have been an anthropologist because she is curious and always wants to know everything, and because this thirst has brought her into contact with a great variety of people and events. Grobet has championed many causes, from the Cuban Revolution to the Sandinistas and, a decade later, the Zapatistas in Chiapas. The only role that she never played was that of the conventional woman, hence she changed the black Cadillac from her childhood to a Volkswagen that has had a number of unique paint jobs: first, clouds and a rainbow; then, a sky with lightning and raindrops; then, stars and a comet; and finally, a mermaid.
What do all these pictures have in common? Unpredictability. Grobet doesnât follow any convention and has always done things the way she wanted. In the argot of lucha libre, itâs fair to say she is in the rough corner, where the rude and irreverent are shouting ceaselessly. Without going any further, her favorite move is the filomena, a mule kick that will break an opponent two out of three times.