Whatever part dance plays in her photographs it has always been part of her life. As a little girl she took ballet lessons and occasionally she saw her mother and father dance across the stone floor of their apartment in Barcelona.
When she was 13 years old Isabel invested her savings in a Kodak Instamatic, but it was not until 10 years later, in the mid-seventies, that photography began to play a serious role in her life. By then she had already married, moved to Madrid and given birth to twin sons. Professionally, she stood at a crossroads between studying mathematics or studying photography. “I chose photography, and I’m incredibly glad I did so today. I’m sure I would have made a terrible mathematician.”
Isabel began studying photography at Fotocentro, the only private school of photography in Madrid, and not long afterwards she flew to the United States to study photography for one summer at the School of Visual Studies in Rochester, New York. While in the US she met a string of influential teachers, and she returned there several times to build on her photographic skills. She learned all she could about lighting and collage techniques, and at ICP in New York she learned how to work in large format. She was also a keen student of traditional photographic techniques such as cyanotypes, albumen prints and platinum prints.
It was platinum printing that became her speciality. “I take all my photographs in large format, 80x120 cm. To enhance the sensuality of the subject I develop the images with platinum salts to bring out a warm, subtle brown tone in the prints. Of course, platinum printing is not an exact science, so there are days when nothing goes the way I want it to in the darkroom. You need enormous patience.”
Isabel is a single-minded photographer who has developed her own distinct style over the course of her career. But naturally she has also been influenced by others, including Ramón Mourelle, Eduardo Momeñe, Lewis Carroll, Tina Modotti, Robert Doisneau and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Since the mid-eighties her career has shot skywards and she has had at least one exhibition a year over the intervening years. She has also published several books. She herself believes that the key to her success is the combination of a real passion for photography and a lot of hard work. Every photograph requires minute planning, explains Isabel: “I start by thinking out the theme of the image. Then I choose the place and the people that I want in it. Finally I prepare the equipment. I choose the format, the camera set-up and the lens. I measure the light level and select the aperture. I always do test shots with a Polaroid, and when everything looks right I set to work. I almost always use a Hasselblad 503CW or 501CM, partly because of the high quality of the lenses, and partly because the cameras are rugged and compact, which is incredibly important for me since I travel so much.”
Since her debut exhibition, “Toques”, in 1986 in Madrid, Isabel Muñoz has spent much of her time travelling, to the extent that she now does most of her work outside Spain.
“One of my most positive memories is of my first exhibition in Paris in 1990. Joel Barde, from Le Mois de La Photo, assessed my work and helped me produce the exhibition. Afterwards it received critical acclaim from Patrick Rogers in a long article in Le Monde. I’m very grateful that people believed in my work; it really opened up a lot of doors for me. While in Paris I also got to know Christian Caujaulle at Agence Vue, and he became my friend and agent. He is a real ‘fighter’ and he fought hard for my work.”
The French capital is important to Isabel. Several of her books have been published there, including Flamenco and Tango (Plum Edition) and Rome Baroque (Edition Manual). Agence Vue also provides her with a steady stream of new assignments. “One very thrilling but difficult assignment was when I did a documentary shoot about Chinese contortionists for a French magazine. It was the first time I had been to China and I discovered a completely new world. It was the mixture of the old and the new, and especially the rapid change towards the new, that fascinated me. I did the documentary shots at the beautiful Shaolin temple in the middle-south of China, where in the late 19th century the monks learned to meditate by developing sophisticated acrobatic skills.”
Isabel Muñoz is soon to travel to China again, this time to prepare for a new project on Tibetan opera. Brazil and Africa also figure in her travel plans for the near future. No, she doesn’t sit still for long. “I also want to go to Senegal and Mali to try to find the roots of black Africa’s old dances and rituals. But the one thing that I really want to do is get access to the training stables of the Sumo wrestlers, which is very difficult for a woman. I have tried so many times without success, but one fine day I will succeed!”