Guatemalan photographer and visual artist Isabel Herrera creates images that depict the kind of truth found only in dreams. Compelled by the ephemeral magic of instant photography, she’s known for her ethereal Polaroid photography as well as her surreal compositions made from Polaroid emulsion lifts applied to various fabrics and metals. Her work seems to evoke both stillness and imminent action simultaneously– words not yet said, gestures about to be made, changes waiting to happen– reflecting a balanced harmony reminiscent of the cycles of nature.
Born and raised in Guatemala City, Herrera discovered the power of art through family. Her mother made large-format batik designs and paper collages, later moving into haute couture. “She was always experimenting with different techniques and materials. I’d join her, sometimes as an assistant, sometimes an observer, but always her student.” Her father was the family photographer, constantly carrying the latest equipment to capture moments of their lives. Herrera earned a BA in psychology from the College of William and Mary, where she spent free time wandering among the ancient trees of Virginia. “Whenever I’m alone in nature, I can feel something beyond what I see – a bigger picture that connects everything on a grander scale. I try to view life from that mysterious, larger perspective, where everything is part of a whole. There’s a harmony that exists in this world, whether I’m paying attention to it or not.”
As the mother of a daughter with autism, Herrera is well attuned to life’s uncertainties, often explored in her work. “My daughter is my teacher and my guide. We’re all facing an uncertain future, and I’m comfortable with that. Change is inevitable. But it makes space for growth.” A 2013 encounter with internationally renowned Guatemalan photographer Luis González Palma led Herrera back to making art. He became her mentor after seeing her digital photography, encouraging her to develop her natural eye and pursue her unique vision. “He showed me how to see more than what I thought was there.” Herrera realized that her best digital shots had the hazy, vintage look of 70s Polaroid snapshots, so she went online, bought a vintage Polaroid, and taught herself to use it through YouTube tutorials, Instagram feeds, and trial-and-error. “Polaroid photography slows you down. You can’t take a thousand photos, you have to wait for the right moment. It’s a good metaphor for life: Things happen that I don’t expect, mistakes, discolorations, little surprises, and those mistakes are often what make it beautiful.”
In 2016, Herrera survived a near-fatal car accident that left her temporarily blind, with punctured lungs and several broken bones. The experience marked a major change in her approach to both work and life. “That moment became an opportunity to live more fully and more focused on what matters to me.” She began taking her artistic career more seriously, exhibiting her work regularly, and connected with a welcoming and inspiring worldwide community of polaroid artists who opened her eyes to the endless possibilities of the medium. “I’m always looking to be surprised, searching capture that instant of magic that will never come again. That’s a very precious gift.”
Isabel Herrera’s work has been showcased at Guatemala’s Sol del Rio Contemporary Art Gallery, Juannio’s annual Contemporary Latin American Art Auction, and international instant photography festivals in Germany, France, Italy, and the UK. Her photographs and Polaroid emulsion lift compositions have been featured in Featured Artist, Circle Foundations for the Arts (December 2021). She was invited to be a guest lecturer at Barcelona’s first International Experimental Photography Festival in January 2020, and a guest judge for Guatemala’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín Design Week 2020.