Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Manuel Alvarez Bravo

1902-2002

Inductee Sponsor: Joesph Lust

About

I took these two photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the Third Colloquium of Latin American Photography in Havana, Cuba in the fall of 1984. He is seated in a lecture hall admiring a Matthew Brady portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He is accompanied by two other photographers who are also major forces in Mexican and Latin American photography (all of whom, incidentally, have had Guggenheim grants).
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Photographer extraordinaire Graciela Iturbide (1942- ) apprenticed with him in the early 1970s. She has had several books published of her work and is especially motivated by the situation of women in underprivileged, sometimes desperate, situations in Latin America and Hispanic women in the United States. Graciela is responsible for the well-known image of a woman from Juchitán with an iguana on her head which was even published in the Wall Street Journal (without crediting her, I’d like to add). When I spoke with her a year ago, she was still using film.

Pedro Meyer (1936- ), standing above her, is also a major Mexican photographer who worked with digital materials as soon as they were available. He is a total master of multimedia. Subject-wise, he is more attracted to costumes, emotions and social masks. In 2000 Pedro made a marvelous portrait of Don Manuel, stiffly seated in a chair with his legs crossed, right behind the life-size figure of Good Fame Sleeping, for which Alvarez Bravo is so well-known. It is a first class Photoshop job. It can be seen on Pedro’s Web gallery, www.ZoneZero.com. He was also instrumental bringing together critics, photographers and others interested in Latin American photography in conferences and colloquiums beginning in the late 1970s as well as helping to build the Centro de la Imagen, the “must see” photo museum in Mexico.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, or “Don Manuel” or “El Maestro”, as he was almost always called by the world around him as a sign of enormous respect, was a synonym for Mexican if not Latin American photography until at least the 1970s. We first met at a five-day party celebrating a large retrospective of his work in Tucson in 1979. I translated for him and only years later did I discover that his English was very serviceable — he enjoyed the company of young, attractive women.

Manuel photographs that imperceptible crack between the image and its name between sensation and perception. –Octavio Paz

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Don Manuel was born about a block from the cathedral, the Zocalo, in Mexico City on February 4, 1902. He thought it was a humorous coincidence that he was just a few days older than Ansel Adams, that one of them should be ursine, exuberant and outgoing, the other quieter, almost shy, almost lyric at times, that one should be a symbol of U.S. photography, the other of Mexican and Latin American photography, that one should specialize in straight forward, majestic landscapes, the other in often urban, sort of surrealist symbolism. They were both superb printers whose work hasn’t yet been reproduced perfectly in ink. And they were friends as well.

Bravo first worked as a government bureaucrat for several years. He claimed that a 1922 book on Picasso and another on Atget, as well as meeting photographer Hugo Brehme, who lived and worked in Mexico about the same time, caused the scales to fall off his eyes, as has been said too often.

He has experimented with simple cameras and basic darkroom operations while the Mexican revolution was taking place on his doorstep in the teens. Because of his interests, as a boy, friends gave him a very rare and classic Giroux daguerreotype camera made in the 1830s. He has collected photography from around the world and has donated the pictures to what are now two large public photo collections in Mexico.

He started taking photographs seriously in 1923, in the same year that photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti moved to Mexico City. He said he never met Edward. He did sign the guest book at Weston’s 1924 Aztecland exhibition in Mexico City. He mentioned seeing the two of them walking down the street. When Don Manuel moved back to Mexico City from Oaxaca in 1927 he met Tina and visited with her frequently although he avoided talking with her about politics, which must have been a hard job. He was, in fact, the only person to see her off at the railroad station when she was deported in 1930. Tina gave him her view camera and an unfinished roll of platinum or palladium printing paper which he showed me fifty years later.

In 1929 Tina urged Don Manuel to send a few prints to Edward Weston in Carmel, possibly with the idea that they might be included with those he was forwarding to the Film und Foto Committee in Germany. Unfortunately it was too late but not too late for Weston to write him a thank you note:

“a very fine series of photographs from you. . . . sincerely they are important,–and if you are a new worker, photography’s fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint. It is not often I am stimulated to enthusiasm over a group of photographs. Perhaps the finest, for me, is the ‘child urinating’ [into a basin, done in 1927]: finely seen and executed.”

In 1932 Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Paul Strand met and began a long friendship. He was in Mexico at this time working on his film “The Wave.”

In 1934 he met Henri Cartier-Bresson while they were both in Mexico working on a film in Tehuantepec. One day Don Manuel heard explosions and thought it might be a festival. He hurried to photograph it and, instead, found a strike of sugar workers with one young man, Rosenda, already dead. His monumental body, splayed diagonally across the frame, is coincidentally reminiscent of Weston’s 1925 picture of Tina nude on the azotea. For me, this the picture of the dead worker is an amazing composition: the white of his shirt contrasting with the black blood, the middle grey of his face and the darker grey of his arm – as well as the tragedy of his sacrificed youth. Could the Mexican poet and philosopher Octavio Paz have been referring to this aspect of Don Manuel’s work when he wrote “reality is more real in black and white?” The spoon on the ground on the right creates an unanswered question that could have been the subject for an entire hour of “Law and Order.”

This photograph is about as close to politics – in a very political country – that Alvarez Bravo ever got – and it may be the photograph by him which is most frequently reproduced.

In 1934 Alvarez Bravo and Cartier-Bresson had an exhibition together at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. The next year it traveled to the New York gallery of Julien Levy, the great sponsor of surrealism. A section on Walker Evans was added there. The overlapping of the work of these three photographers, from France, Mexico and the United States, says a great deal about the taste of the 1930s, as the world economy tried to recover from the Depression, as nationalism became an important theme and as the world prepared for another war. The show was titled: “Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs.” In 2004, 70 years later, it was reconstructed and a first-rate catalog was published by Steidl.

In 1938 the founder and promoter of surrealism, André Breton, went to Mexico and was captivated by Alvarez Bravo’s work. He published nine of his pictures and an important essay the next year. It’s said that they wanted to use Good Fame Sleeping for the cover but couldn’t because of the frontal nudity.

In fact, like the painter Frida Kahlo (whom he and his wife Lola did exceptional portraits of), Manuel didn’t want to be called “surrealist,” but the potential rewards made it look like he would come out ahead by going along with it. Frida and Manuel both rejected being profiled, which is the perfect response for a real surrealist.

He did, in fact, set pictures up from the beginning. Sand and Pines and Paper Games from the 1920s were all constructions. The former was a small mound of sand into which he stuck pine branches; the latter, folded paper. In Parabola optica (1931) he flipped the negative which makes the viewer enter his world and look again. In Good Fame Sleeping (1938-39) he literally sent out for the model, the bandages, the cactus and the site!

Looking at an overview of his work, he liked to create the appearance of randomness and serendipity. He liked cutting heads off in his compositions as well as photographing sugar skulls, coffins and boxes that look like coffins. He also enjoyed shooting nude women, especially breasts. In other words, he found enormous meaning in mythical symbols of life and death.

The muralist Diego Rivera, twice married to Frida Kahlo, commented: “The photography of Manuel Alvarez Bravo is Mexico by cause, form and content, anguish is omnipresent and the atmosphere is supersaturated with irony.”

He was married three times: once to a writer, Doris Heyden (1942 to 1962) and twice to photographers, Lola Alvarez Bravo (1925 to 1934) and Colette Alvarez Urbajtel in 1962.

In 1989 Beaumont Newhall commented that he regretted enormously not having included Manuel Alvarez Bravo in his History of Photography. By the time of his death in 2002 Don Manuel had been honored with almost every award a photographer might be eligible for. There are very significant collections of his work in the United States at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and at the J. Paul Getty Museum, not to mention Mexico. There have been particularly interesting retrospectives of his work at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1978 which traveled to Tucson in 1979 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997, not to mention Mexico, Cuba and Europe. For listings of works by and about him and of his exhibitions as well as a much more complete chronology than what I’ve supplied, check the catalog for the 1997 MoMA retrospective by Susan Kismaric which is titled simply: Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

By Amy Conger for IPHF