Zeke Peña works at a desk with a computer screen and drawing tablet. The screen has a woman with a headdress. Posters cover the wall behind the computer.

Zeke Peña working in his studio in El Paso, Texas

When Zeke Peña, illustrator of Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, first began turning the life of photographer Graciela Iturbide into a graphic biography for young adults, he knew he wanted her photographs to be his guide. “I would say every step, literally every single scene, and every single page started with a sketch of one of her photographs, whether that photograph was going to be included as a photograph, or just as an illustration.”

Isabel Quintero—Photographic’s author—spent countless hours interviewing Graciela Iturbide and researching her life and work in the Getty Center’s Photographs Study Room and the Getty Research Institute’s Library. Peña, on the other hand, purposefully avoided this kind of biographical investigation. Instead, he focused on Iturbide’s photographs to attempt to inhabit the perspective of their maker. He described his method with each image as “a bit of detective work. I’m looking at how it’s framed; I’m looking at where she’s standing.”

Left is a drawing of a cactus with birds and close up of claws, right is a photograph of a cactus with black birds flying around it.

Photographic features several images from Graciela Iturbide’s Sonoran Desert series. Zeke Peña’s illustrations (like the one above) show him working out the relationships between the desert, photographer, and guide.

“My process of approaching these illustrations,” Peña said, “was picking up the photos first and trying to build the visual—the action, the visual narrative—and then piecing together the scene around what I think was going on.” Examining Iturbide’s photograph of a Saguaro cactus—taken in the Sonoran Desert in 1979—Peña imagined Iturbide looking up at the century-old cactus, birds swirling in the sky, the Indigenous Seri woman photographed as Mujer ángel her companion. Iturbide’s photographs capture just one split second in a single frame, but the making of those photographs takes up several pages in the graphic biography.

A woman stands looking out on a desert landscape. Her dark hair is long and she wears a big white skirt and dark jacket on top.

Mujer ángel, desierto de Sonora, México, 1979, Graciela Iturbide. Gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 × 22 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.65.29. © Graciela Iturbide

Although Peña has a BA in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, he didn’t want to approach the project from the perspective of an art historian. He wanted to approach the work as a fellow artist and, when asking himself how Iturbide would want to be portrayed, drew from his own desire to let his work speak for him.

Two side-by-side graphics show rectangles with a woman, a bird and a cactus. A woman holds a camera to her face.

Note how these panels from Photographic were inspired by and expand on the above photograph, Mujer ángel, desierto de Sonora, México.

Though Peña relied on his own experiences, he worked painstakingly to represent Iturbide accurately, sketching from photographs Iturbide provided of herself throughout her life. Balancing the artistic and biographical needs of the project was complex, and Peña collaborated closely with Quintero from the earliest rough drafts and thumbnails to the final publication to create a book that represented their own creative vision while honoring Iturbide’s.

For Peña, the ability to sketch from Iturbide’s entire oeuvre—from her very first photograph taken as a teenager to her most current work—was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Being given the permission to use her photographs as reference was really huge. It made the process so much easier from a visual standpoint, because I could always return to the photos.”

This work, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, is now available for purchase at the Getty Museum Store.

Want to learn more about Quintero’s contribution to this work? You can read a profile of her process here.