Lourdes Grobet, a Mexican photographer who focused her camera on the raucous, highflying sport of lucha libre, demystifying one of Mexico’s national pastimes with pictures that captured professional wrestlers in the ring and at home — raising their arms in triumph, feeding a hungry baby, posing for a family portrait (all while wearing their signature wrestling masks) — died July 15 at her home in Mexico City. She was 81.
Her son Xavier said she had been ailing but did not give a specific cause. On Twitter, the Mexican culture ministry called Ms. Grobet “one of the greatest representatives of photographic art in Mexico,” adding that “her work portrayed urban culture from the perspective of socially marginalized groups.”
In an art career that spanned more than half a century, Ms. Grobet dabbled in theater, film and video projects, examining issues of social class and gender while trying to carve out space for women in the traditionally male-dominated art world. She photographed Indigenous actors in a Mexican theater troupe, made photomurals of household appliances, and traveled to the Bering Strait, the icy curtain between Russia and the United States, to take pictures and video footage for a project examining notions of political borders and migration.
But she was best known for taking her camera into wrestling arenas across Mexico, where she showed an anthropologist’s eye while photographing wrestlers known as luchadores and taking pictures of the crowds that came to see them fight. Her photos captured near-mythical wrestlers such as Blue Demon and El Santo — the silver-masked, everyman hero who became one of Mexico’s most beloved athletes — and often bore a whiff of the surreal, with the luchadores wearing their masks far outside the ring.
Juxtaposing the ordinary and the theatrical, Ms. Grobet photographed a masked Blue Demon wearing an elegant three-piece suit, complete with cuff links and a carefully knotted tie. Her 1980 portrait of the father-son duo of Tinieblas and Tinieblas Jr. showed them seated at home, in their usual outfits of glittering gold and silver, and joined by their fur-covered mascot Alushe, who resembled an Ewok from Star Wars.
Ms. Grobet was especially interested in wrestlers’ domestic lives, photographing one shirtless luchador in his opulent living room alongside a life-size sculpture of a hunting dog. Other pictures showed female wrestlers applying makeup before a match or tending to their children afterward, with one masked fighter shown feeding her baby from a bottle. The picture was part of a series titled “La Doble Lucha” (“The Double Struggle”).
“While their costumes are a reflection of their character, it’s their job to be part of a show. And out of the arena, they are just like us,” Ms. Grobet told Britain’s Independent newspaper.
Raised in a family of “sports fanatics and body worshipers,” Ms. Grobet had been interested in lucha libre since she was a child. But she was barred from attending wrestling matches by her father — “He didn’t think that was the kind of thing women should see,” she told journalist Angélica Abelleyra — and started closely following the sport only in the 1980s.
“Here I saw what I thought was real Mexican culture,” she recalled in an interview last year with AWARE, a Paris nonprofit that promotes female artists. “At this point in my photographs I didn’t want to depict a tedious, overdone vision of Mexico. But there, in the wrestling ring, I found the real Mexico. The organizers of the fights were annoyed with me at first, because they had never had a woman photographer doing what I was doing. But I told them how much I wanted and needed to be there, and eventually they understood and gave me a special permit.”
Ms. Grobet went on to publish more than 11,000 wrestling photos, many of which appeared in her book “Lucha Libre: Masked Superstars of Mexican Wrestling” (2005), which helped introduce the sport to a wider audience in the United States. Paramount executives reportedly bought dozens of copies while preparing to make the wrestling movie “Nacho Libre” (2006) with Jack Black.
The film was a comedy, although Ms. Grobet insisted that the sport was quite serious. She situated it in what she described as a long tradition of mask-wearing in Mexico, which extended to pre-Hispanic times and included an ancient stone head found at the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Anyone who thought that lucha libre was camp, she said, was indulging in “a social class prejudice.”
María de Lourdes Grobet Argüelles was born in Mexico City on July 25, 1940. Her father, Ernesto, was a Swiss-born cyclist who competed at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, finishing ninth in the men’s track time trial. He ran a plumbing business, and her mother, María Luisa, was a homemaker.
While her parents encouraged her to play sports, Ms. Grobet traded gymnastics for dance, which she described as her “initiation into art.” After being bedridden with hepatitis and barred from going into the dance studio as an adolescent, she began taking formal painting classes, eventually studying under Mathias Goeritz and surrealist photographer Kati Horna at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She was also mentored by artist Gilberto Aceves Navarro, for whom she worked as an assistant.
Ms. Grobet largely stopped painting after traveling to Paris in 1968, when she “felt something burning inside me,” as she put it, and decided to visit new galleries instead of old museums. There she discovered Kinetic art, which moved or changed shape. She was inspired to create her first art “action,” a display of psychedelic lights and projections for a concert by jazz pianist Juan José Catalayud that changed along with his music.
When she returned to Mexico, she burned all of her old drawings and paintings.
“I acted on impulse,” she explained, “and felt liberated by it afterwards.”
Ms. Grobet went on to mount interactive exhibitions such as “Serendípiti” (“Serendipity”), in which the audience walked through a maze filled with lights and false floors. For the 1975 performance piece “Hora y Media” (“Hour and a Half”), she and artist Marcos Kurtycz turned a gallery into a makeshift photo lab. Kurtycz took photos of Ms. Grobet breaking through a sheet of metallic paper stretched across a wooden frame.
“The enlarged photos were printed on paper without fixative,” according to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which later displayed pictures of the work, “so that the displayed images vanished when the gallery lights went on, suggesting the complex and tentative nature of the visibility that women’s issues, women’s art, and indeed women themselves, as flesh-and-blood people rather than goddesses, had begun to have at that time in the public sphere.”
Influenced by the radical art movement Fluxus, Ms. Grobet sought new ways to broaden the field of photography. While studying at British art schools on a grant in the late 1970s, she took photos of the local landscape, but only after painting rocks and other natural features with house paint.
“Her professor failed her, and her Derbyshire neighbors called the police,” according to the Brooklyn Museum, which acquired some of the photos. Undeterred, Ms. Grobet returned to Mexico and took pictures of the desert in Michoacán and Oaxaca, photographing trees and cactuses that she painted blue, chartreuse, red and yellow.
Ms. Grobet had her first New York solo show in 2005, at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Her work is part of the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and the Fundación Cultural Televisa and Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, among other institutions.
Survivors include four children from her marriage to Xavier Pérez Barba — Alejandra, Xavier, Ximena and Juan Cristóbal — as well as a sister, a brother and six grandchildren.
As she told it, her marriage ended in divorce partly because she decided to go skydiving, fulfilling a childhood dream over her husband’s objections. “I parachute-jumped,” she told Abelleyra, “and that led to a family conflict. But it allowed me to understand time, space and silence. The four or five minutes you are suspended in midair seem like an eternity; you feel freed, freed from time and in complete silence.”
She later applied unsuccessfully to become an astronaut.