He lies on the ground, a river of blood flowing from his head, his outstretched hand a gently unclenching fist. The folds of his shirt, a flag in the corner of the frame, the spilt blood all draw the eye back to the slain man?s face, his unseeing eyes staring calmly at the heavens. “Obrero en huelga, asesinado” (Striking worker, assassinated) was taken by Manuel Alvarez Bravo in 1934. It?s classic photojournalism?an intimate, gripping view of a powerful moment. But Alvarez Bravo wasn’t exactly a photojournalist. He was in town shooting footage for an experimental art film, filming sequences of a weaver?s hands on the loom and iguanas coming and going in the forest. One day, he heard what he thought were fireworks from a local festival, and went to see the celebration. The noise wasn’t fireworks; it was gunshots at a sugar-mill strike. When Alvarez Bravo got there, the man in the photograph had just been killed. Alvarez Bravo says that he snapped the picture quickly, without thinking about the composition.
A key figure in 20th century Mexican art and one of the most important photographers in the history of the medium, Manuel Alvarez Bravo turned 100 on February 2, 2002. His centennial was celebrated with a series of events in Mexico (including exhibits of his photographs and his world-class stamp collection) and with “Optical Parables,” a show at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that featured prints from the museum?s extensive collection of his work. The accompanying book, Manuel Alvarez Bravo: In Focus, provides insightful close readings of the images and a valuable glimpse into his working process, such as an alternative take from the session in which he shot one of his best known works, “La buena fama, durmiendo.” There is also a new volume of nudes, released this winter by Distributed Art Publishers.
Alvarez Bravo defies categorization. He was an accidental photojournalist and a socially conscious surrealist. That makes for wonderful photographs, but it can drive critics to distraction. One encyclopedia of photography describes his work as “mostly simple subjects easily described in a phrase.” Other critics delight in unpacking and analyzing the graphic and symbolic complexities of his more complicated pictures. A transcript of a colloquium of Alvarez Bravo scholars held at the Getty Museum in 2000 includes a great exchange. One of the scholars speculated about the social and symbolic importance of the fact that most of the street photography was shot at high noon. Nonsense, responded Alvarez Bravo’s wife, Colette Alvarez Urbajtel, who explained that the photographs were taken at noon because the film he was using in those days was too slow to shoot with at any other time of the day.
Alvarez Bravo was born in a middle class family in Mexico City in 1902. He studied music and painting, but had demonstrated a talent for organizing numbers and doing calculations in his head, so he found work as an accountant. In 1924 he began photographing seriously in his spare time. In the 1920s and 1930s Mexico was a crossroads for adventurers from around the world, drawn to the revolutions in Mexican art and politics. One of them was Tina Modotti, the Italian-American photographer and activist, who introduced Alvarez Bravo to the most important Mexican and international artists on the scene—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Frida Kahlo, as well as photographers like American modernist masters Paul Strand and Edward Weston and innovative French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. After attending a lecture on the work of anthropologist and father of semiotics Claude Levi-Strauss that was given by poet Octavio Paz, the poet and the photographer became lifelong friends. Later Alvarez Bravo worked as a cameraman and still photographer on the sets of directors Luis Bunuel and Sergei Eisenstein.
Diego Rivera called his photography “Mexican by cause, form, and content,” while other muralists were peeved by Alvarez Bravo’s unseemly focus on the purely poetical, which they deemed insufficiently Mexican. Meanwhile, the surrealists were upset when the pictures weren’t weird enough. A student of many movements, Alvarez Bravo never let his work be circumscribed by any single ideology. His photos are poetic because light can be lyrical and real people, places, and objects can be symbols. His images are political because life is political. The result is a head on, eyes-wide-open confrontation of all of the cultural, economic, artistic, and historic forces around him. He relied on multiple sensibilities and methodologies—activist, surrealist, humanist, communist, nationalist, and folklorist—to translate the shapes and shadows, the symbols and subjects that he saw in the world into photographs.
After Modotti was deported from Mexico for her left-wing activism, he took over her job as staff photographer for Mexican Folkways, a pathbreaking cultural magazine founded by the American expatriate Francis Toors. He was also commissioned to photograph the work of the muralists for reproduction, which allowed him to finally give up accounting. Nevertheless, to make a living as a photographer he shot portraits, ran a photo supply store, worked as a cameraman on movies, and over the years he taught photography at several schools. He influenced several generations of Mexican photographers, including Graciela Iturbide and Nacho Lopez, while his reputation grew outside of Mexico. As early as 1935, he had a group show in New York with Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, and his work was included in Edward Steichen’s monumental “Family of Man” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Since then, his work has been shown throughout the world.
Alvarez Bravo’s work covers an amazing variety of subjects. (Little wonder, considering he’s been at it for such a long time; although his health is rather fragile at 100, he was still shooting important pictures well into his 90s.) He made abstract pictures of cactuses and scraps of adding machine paper, portraits of famous artists and foundry workers in fireproof suits, formal nude studies, and pictures of Indians in Chiapas. His street scenes, landscapes and still-lifes are almost always inhabited by people or by some kind of icon, whether it’s a nightmarish view of a maniacal, carved wooden horse or a giddy ensemble of grinning paper mannequins in a clothing market. Often the pictures have the quality of images from a dream or a half-faded memory. Some of this is attributable to the dream-state of reality in Mexico, where modern and ancient cultures, magic and technology all meet face to face on the street. Bravo reveled in these contrasts and contradictions. His images appear in the space between absolutes.
Even a seemingly simple picture is often a complex web of references. At first blush, “Lucy” (1986) is a simple visual pun. A nude woman, visible only from her shoulders to her crotch, stands holding a pair of glass eyes on a tray. The eyeballs mirror the shape of her breasts. They seem to be simultaneously looking up at the model and back at the viewer.
To complicate matters, Lucy isn’t just the name of the model (if it is her name at all). Lucy is a Sicilian virgin martyr, the patron saint of optometrists and people with vision problems. St. Lucy is traditionally seen carrying her own eyeballs around on a platter. The story goes that Lucy was so committed to preserving her chastity that when a suitor told her she had lovely eyes, she plucked them out, brought them to him on a tray, and asked him to take the eyes and leave her alone. Early images of the saint were based on statues of a local pagan goddess who carried around a tray of cookies, including some that looked like eyeballs. The eyeball story probably evolved to explain the icon. A further digression: there’s also a traditional Italian confection known as poppe di monaca or “nun’s breasts,’ which may or may not be related to the legend of St. Lucy.
In some ways, digressions are exactly the point of Alvarez Bravo’s work. His pictures, and the titles that he gives them, invoke Catholic and Mexican syncretic religious iconography, the historical and psychological symbolism found in thousands of years of literature and art.
“La buena fama, durmiendo” (“Good reputation, sleeping,” 1938) was commissioned by the French surrealist Andre Breton for the cover of a catalog of surrealist art. After he received the assignment, Alvarez Bravo asked a doctor friend to bring some bandages, and went to the roof of his studio with his model, a blanket, and some cacti of the species known in Spanish as “eye-openers.” In the photo, the woman poses on the blanket with her legs crossed awkwardly. Her wrists, ankles and hips are bound in bandages, as much like an athlete or a dancer as like a medical patient. Her skin is smooth, the cactus spines are sharp, and the wall behind her is cracked and rough. There are some obvious questions. Why is she bandaged? Did she hurt herself on the cacti or are they protecting her from further harm? Alvarez Bravo has said that her unbound genitals have an “obvious Freudian significance.” For me, the point of the picture is the act of looking and of asking the questions; the picture has its own sense of logic. Every statue, every cactus, every man on the street in an Alvarez Bravo photograph has something to show us—or something it would like to hide. Sometimes the hidden is as important as the visible. Little girls look through windows into courtyards that we can’t see, garden statues have their eyes bound with vines, nudes nearly—but not quite—hide their nakedness behind draped clothing or concealing hands. What matters most in these pictures is the process of seeing and interpreting the image.
Alvarez Bravo makes his fascination with this process explicit in “Parabola Optica” (1931). It’s a picture of the storefront of an optician’s shop. The store is decorated with painted spectacles and eyeballs, framed and reflected in the glass of the shop’s windows and doors. The usual translation of the title is “Optical Parable,” but the Spanish also means “optical parabola” (a reference to the shapes of the eyeballs and to Alvarez Bravo’s background in mathematics; “optica” also means point of view).
Sometimes he printed the picture straight, so that the words in the windows read normally, and sometimes he flipped the negative so that the whole storefront appears as if in a mirror. The first time he noticed the storefront was as a reflection in the mirror of a barbershop across the street. The image also would have been reversed when he composed it on the ground glass of his view camera, so in some ways the flipped version (which is more common) is arguably more correct. But correct doesn’t have anything to do with it. It works both ways, and in fact it works better because it exists both ways. Every time you come across the image, you have to look at it for a second before you can tell which way it’s going.
In everyday life, we usually feel sure that we know what we’re looking at. We take it for granted that what we see is a single, absolute truth. Alvarez Bravo made an art out of the act of destabilizing these crystallized truths. One of the most exciting things about his photography is that his freshness, his constant renovation and rejuvenation of the act of seeing, is contagious. In his work, as in life, truths can be fractured and multiple, ephemeral and fluid. When we’re lucky they can also be hauntingly, mysteriously beautiful.
Jake Miller has been photographing and writing about the culture and arts of Latin America for more than a decade. He is currently working on a longterm project documenting gardens around the world.