Manuel Alvarez Bravo

This text, by M. Darsie Alexander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, is reprinted from the brochure produced for the exhibition.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, born in 1902, was an adolescent living on the outskirts of Mexico City when the Mexican revolution (1910–1920) reached its zenith. Running over the hills during intervals of peace, he would sometimes find a body lying dead and abandoned, the victim of brutal and often random violence. By the time Alvarez Bravo reached adulthood, nearly one million Mexicans had died due to starvation and fighting between rebel factions struggling for power. But his childhood was not lost to these disturbing realities. The experience of watching a local amateur working beneath the red light of a darkroom lamp remains a powerful memory for Alvarez Bravo from those formative years. It was his introduction to what became his livelihood and passion, the creative art of photography.

The career of Alvarez Bravo, spanning nearly eighty years, has passed through many shifts and evolutions. However, the combination of two primary factors characterizes his work: an early openness to artistic influence from outside Mexico, and a thoroughly Mexican subject matter. In the initial phases of his development, through the 1930s, European and American trends entered Mexico through magazines and the visits of avant-garde photographers like Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the years following the revolution, foreigners came to Mexico in pursuit of political and creative freedom. Artistic life was thriving. José Vasconcelos, minister of education under the Obregón regime, was instrumental in sponsoring a mural program that included Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco among its participants. The determined effort to establish a unified Mexican cultural identity in conjunction with the emergence of Mexico City as an international center for artistic and intellectual exchange provided the backdrop against which Alvarez Bravo pursued his lifelong vocation.

Alvarez Bravo's first professional work in photography was as a freelancer for Mexican Folkways, a magazine dedicated to the cultural history of Mexico focusing on such topics as traditional music and burial customs. He obtained the position through the efforts of friend and fellow photographer Modotti, who came to Mexico City with Weston in 1923. Both Modotti and Weston were employed by Mexican Folkways, but when Modotti was deported in 1930 for political reasons, she turned her camera and her job over to Alvarez Bravo. He carried on her work, photographing murals, small toys and handmade items, and portraits of artists and musicians. Not only did his time at Mexican Folkways enhance his experience looking at objects before the camera, but it affirmed his ties to a subject matter rooted in the land and people of his native country.

The 1930s witnessed the distillation of a new form of photography for Alvarez Bravo in which the mundane became the basis for fantasy and allegory. In the 1920s, Alvarez Bravo had seen Weston experiment with refining details of his environment into abstractions with his camera. This approach was new in a medium that had struggled to prove its artistic merit by imitating the look of painting. By contrast, Weston demonstrated that a photograph could claim status as art when it took advantage of its capacity to directly describe discrete aspects of the material world. Through his work, he encouraged a way of looking at the world that emphasized the form of isolated objects and artifacts. Alvarez Bravo realized these ideals by the late 1920s in his photographs of close views of architecture, nature, and daily life to form dramatic compositions. As the 1930s approached, however, his interests shifted toward the urban landscape. Rather than producing artistic abstractions, he pictured small scenes of modern life in Mexico City. In The Evangelist (1930s), a man sits with a folded paper at a small table in a shaded courtyard, his intense expression offset by the chaos of jumbled articles surrounding him: overgrown vines, bowls, hats, a birdcage. In the act of photographing such a typical sight—a man relaxing in an outdoor café—Alvarez Bravo elevates him to a scribe among worldly things.

The often bizarre theater of everyday existence came to shape Alvarez Bravo's photography. Signs, cafés, shop windows, and street vendors offered a new and rich vocabulary for his evolving aesthetic. This is evident in two of his best-known images, The Crouched Ones (1934) and Ladder of Ladders (1931). In both instances the open street stalls and doorways of Mexico City serve as framing devices for evocative and compelling images. The Crouched Ones provides a view into a bar where five workers lean over a countertop, their backs to the observer. The partially closed gate to the café casts a long shadow over the men, who have been effectively decapitated by the darkness and whose feet appear bound by chains entwined around their stools. Using his camera to create a metaphor of isolation out of signs, architecture, and five men's bodies, Alvarez Bravo creates a telling juxtaposition from the commonplace. This transformation of the ordinary into something heightened and fantastic was also a feature of work by French photographer Cartier-Bresson, who exhibited with Alvarez Bravo in 1935, during an extended stay in Mexico. Cartier-Bresson shared Alvarez Bravo's enthusiasm for mysterious imagery that drew upon the relationship between animate and inanimate elements easily found in urban settings. His embrace of the city's activity and dissonance became a decisive force in the documentation of modern life.

Alvarez Bravo's photograph Ladder of Ladders includes what appears to be a random sampling of objects: a phonograph, workmen's ladders, and a series of stacked coffins. The artist's title adds to the strange complexity of the picture. The viewer immediately sees the ladders leaning against a door frame, but the stacked coffins form another kind of ladder symbolizing spiritual ascension, the climb toward heaven. For Alvarez Bravo, an avid reader since childhood, words can explain, provoke, even mystify. Adamantly opposed to leaving works untitled, he says that an obscure title "is the most real one—the one which most accurately defines the picture." Grasping the meaning of a photograph, he suggests, involves looking into hidden recesses that may escape the eyes of a casual observer.

The provocative juxtapositions of objects as they appear in Alvarez Bravo's photographs may help to explain his appeal to the European Surrealists, drawn to themes of chance and the unconscious. When André Breton, the leader and spokesman for Surrealism in Paris, came to Mexico in 1938, he gravitated toward Alvarez Bravo's work. In a frequently recounted tale, the artist remembers that while waiting in line to receive a paycheck, he was interrupted by a phone call made on behalf of Breton. The caller asked the photographer if he would produce an image for the cover of the catalogue for a forthcoming Surrealist exhibition at Galería de Arte Mexicano. He quickly found the model, bandages, and star cacti that were to become his props for The Good Reputation Sleeping (1939). For many this is the artist's most memorable if not most enigmatic photograph, merging elements of sexuality, the unconscious, danger, and healing. Like many of his photographs, its meaning is open-ended and alluring. Do the thorns symbolize protection of the dreamer or are they the source of her "injuries"?

Small vignettes created for his camera and scenes from daily life continued to inspire Alvarez Bravo for decades, but in the 1940s a new body of work evolved—the landscapes. The expansive Mexican landscape had spawned a rich artistic tradition in painting and was the source of great national pride for a country so connected to agriculture. Alvarez Bravo's images show a vast and varied terrain comprised of cacti, meadows of corn, and flat open horizons sometimes articulated by stones and crumbling walls. Printed in deep tones of black and white, the landscapes suggest the wide-angle perspectives of film—a medium that had intrigued Alvarez Bravo since his youth, and which occupied him professionally from the 1930s through the 1950s, first as a filmmaker and later as a still photographer. This cinematic approach to photography differed considerably from the intentionally ambiguous and intellectually driven work done in Mexico City during the previous decade.

Although Alvarez Bravo's tool, the camera, performs a split-second action, his work is often described as "timeless" or "eternal." He clearly pursues these themes in works such as Portrait of the Eternal (1935), which features a woman with long, dark hair holding a small mirror to her face. An unseen source casts light on the right side of the woman's body, pulling her out of darkness—and back into the temporal world. The mirror, frequently a symbol for vanity, highlights age and the passage of time. Beauty and light are dramatically revealed as transitory elements that are also paradoxically eternal in their recurrence. Thus the photograph, explicitly about one thing, is implicitly about its opposite—a common reversal also present in Alvarez Bravo's works about life and death. The Spirit of the People (1927), with its small grave decorated by flowers, is as much about the spirit of the living as that of the dead. Works that allude to the rituals of ancient Mexican civilization deal with similar themes. A large site where bricks are cut and fired in huge outdoor kilns is the subject of a 1957 photograph and its variant, Kiln Two. The stretch of land, the large smoking pyramid, and the rows of stacked bricks suggest a communion between past and present, causing one writer to observe that the pictured subject looks as much like an ancient ruin as an industrial site. This complex fusion of present and past, specific and infinite, is manifest throughout Alvarez Bravo's oeuvre.

The Spanish term mestizaje offers perspective into the many layers of meaning and sources of influence in Alvarez Bravo's photographs. Historically, the word alludes to racial and cultural blendings, as when European and American elements merged with indigenous Mexican traditions in the 1920s and 1930s. But the process of mestizaje can also be found in the many crossovers, intersections, and contradictions that characterize Alvarez Bravo's signature works. In a single photograph, disparate microcosms and elements of time collapse as they are conflated. In the 1942 image How Small the World Is, a man and woman pass each other on a sidewalk in a chance encounter. Behind them a wall obscures the world beyond, where hanging laundry signals the lives of the inhabitants within. The proximity of these worlds, and yet their relative separateness, represents a vision in which many distinct realities are poised side by side. For a moment, paths intersect on a city street, sometimes acknowledged but often not. Octavio Paz, the Nobel Laureate and longtime friend of the artist, describes Alvarez Bravo's photographs as instants of revelation, not stories. They are "realities in rotation, momentary fixities" on the brink of disappearing.

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©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York