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Bravo, Don Manuel: Mexico and the world are celebrating the one hundredth birthday of acclaimed photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo with stunning exhibitions and a forthcoming book of new images.

In this, the centennial year of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, exhibitions of his work have filled major museums throughout Mexico and beyond. The Mexican Postal Service issued a new stamp to commemorate the life of the master photographer. At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the audience joined the National Symphony Orchestra in serenading him, singing "Las Mananitas" in honor of his one hundredth birthday. At last, the accolades match the accomplishment. "Every photograph by Don Manuel is an anniversary that demands a celebration," declared Mexican writer and cultural critic Carlos Monsivais.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo is the last of a generation of artists who put Mexico on the map, culturally speaking, during the years following the Mexican Revolution. This was the era of modernists like artist Rufino Tamayo, architect Luis Barragan, and poet Octavio Paz, with whom Alvarez Bravo would later collaborate. Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were emblazoning walls with indigenous symbols and revolutionary themes. "It was a very fertile period in Mexican history," says Mikka Gee Conway, co-curator of a recent Alvarez Bravo exhibition at Los Angeles's J. Paul Getty Museum. "As the country was being reconstructed, there was a utopian idea that artists and intellectuals could re-create Mexican society."

Compared with the muralists, Alvarez Bravo's rise to prominence followed a gentler arc. Perhaps it was the nature of his art--understated and subtle as opposed to the muralists' bold pronouncements--that veiled his importance for a time. "His work as a whole has a quiet substance," says Francesco Siqueiros, editor of El Nopal Press. "You actually have to stop and look at his work in a quiet way." Then, too, Alvarez Bravo never embraced the strident revolutionary politics of the muralists, preferring to remain above the fray. "Many people considered him apolitical. I think he was reacting to the aspect of politics that was very constrained propaganda," says Siqueiros, who also participated in the Getty exhibition. "But he had a strong social consciousness. He was interested in understanding the people as opposed to taking positions."

The photographer Paul Strand once observed that "Manuel Alvarez Bravo's work is rooted firmly in his love and compassionate understanding of his own country, its people, their problems, and their needs.... He wishes to speak with warmth about Mexico as Atget spoke about Paris."

Indeed, Alvarez Bravo credits Eugene Atget with exerting an early influence on his photography. Just as Atget captured the quotidian small vignettes of Paris, Alvarez Bravo chronicled unheralded ordinary people participating in everyday life in his native Mexico.

One such print, from the 1950s, shows a boy and Iris mother in an intimate moment. Viewed from the back, they sit on a curb sharing lunch and conversation. The boy's elbow rests on his shoeshine box. Alvarez Bravo titles the work The Mother of the Shoeshine Boy and the Shoeshine Boy. As in all such photographs, Alvarez Bravo invests his subjects with a sense of dignity and timelessness.

Rose Shoshana, of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California, underscores another characteristic of his art that renders it timeless:

"Something quite ordinary that you pass a hundred times a day--suddenly he brings it to us in a new way," she says, citing photographs of displays in a market place such as Set Trap and his Paper Game series. "He takes rolls of old accounting paper and suddenly they become incredible sculptural pieces."

The accounting paper harks back to the days when Alvarez Bravo worked as an accountant, making use of another talent, his prodigious math skills. The day job was necessitated by the family's reduced circumstances after his father died when Alvarez Bravo was barely in his teens. But the youth educated himself--studying a book of Picasso's paintings, visiting museums, subscribing to photography publications, taking night courses in painting, music, and literature, and generally immersing himself in the arts--all of which have enriched his life and his work.

Alvarez Bravo has never stopped absorbing new ideas and experimenting with varied expressions of his medium, meanwhile amassing a remarkable body of work. Currently he and his wife, Colette Alvarez Urbajtel, are collaborating with Shoshana, choosing images for a book to be published next year. "I have no memory," the photographer once said. "My mind is oriented toward the future, not toward the past."

If Alvarez Bravo was slow to gain recognition outside Mexico, he has more than made up for that oversight in recent years. In the United States, acquisitions and exhibitions culminated in a major retrospective of 175 photographs at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1997. Solo exhibitions have surfaced in museums and galleries throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Among the countries that have honored Mexico's greatest photographer are France, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, and the United States.

On the cusp of his one hundredth birthday, Alvarez Bravo traveled to Los Angeles to view an exhibition at the Getty Museum called Optical Parables, after one of his best known images, Optical Parable. The title, and the photograph itself, provide insight into his remarkable vision. At first glance, the 1974 print from a 1931 negative shows an optician's shop, with a sign suspended over the entrance. An oversized painting of an eye informs passersby of the type of service rendered. But the letters, and therefore the image, are reversed--as intended.

Roberto Tejada, art critic and co-curator of the exhibition, sees this photograph as an example of "the way he draws the viewer and the very act of viewing into the picture, as observation itself comes under scrutiny." The name of the business--La Optica Moderna--literally means the modern optician, but Tejada notes that it can also be read as the modern viewpoint.

"Alvarez Bravo makes visual reference to our overconfidence in appearances," says Tejada--"like the photographic process itself."

Alvarez Bravo's signature titles tend to be even more enigmatic in Spanish. Parabola can mean either the geometric figure or a parable. The names on the storefront, A. Spirito and E. Spirito, offer a droll wordplay on espiritu (spirit).

Alvarez Bravo continued to photograph well into his nineties. "His later work is pared down," says Conway. "Maybe that's a factor of decreased mobility on his part. But there's still that thoughtfulness and deliberation. His eye is extremely sensitive."

Photographs from the last decade or so show his garden in Coyoacan, the vines growing outside his house, and the street where he lives and works.

"It's interesting to compare his later work with his earlier photographs," says Shoshana. "Because of his physical limitations he wasn't traveling much outside of Coyoacan. But if you look at some of these contemporary images, there is a very close correlation between what he did in the nineties and his earlier work. There's a focus on ordinary objects seen in a new way, and also his interest in storefronts."

In 1996, Alvarez Bravo traveled to Oaxaca for the opening of the Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo. Photographer and onetime student Graciela Iturbide drove while he photographed. "He took a beautiful series of pictures of mannequins that he then made into platinum prints, and there's a great similarity between them and the mannequins that he made much earlier," says Shoshana, referring to such photographs as Cloaked Mannequin, Mexico and Laughing Mannequins, both printed in the mid-nineties from 1930s negatives.

One close-to-home image, shot in 1987, is Coatlicue, a scene conjured in Alvarez Bravo's garden, in which a small statue of the Aztec god embraces a skeleton. Death is a theme that comes naturally to Alvarez Bravo--an influence of Mexico's pre-Hispanic art, he once explained.

Other recurrent themes that evoke Mexico's past are walls, and openings, or holes. The Daughter of the Dancer shows a young girl in traditional Mexican dress, her back to the viewer, peering through a black hole in a painted wall, into the unknown. In What a Small World, a wall separates two strangers walking along the sidewalk from the world beyond. The man and the woman walk toward each other, but likely will never meet. On the other side of the wall, lines of laundry against a dark sky suggest the separate world of the people behind the wall.

Alvarez Bravo's interest in walls led to the publication of Painted Walls of Mexico, an ambitious undertaking originally suggested by Diego Rivera but published many years later, in 1966. Rivera's student Emily Edwards wrote the text and Manuel Alvarez Bravo photographed all 267 illustrations for the book, ranging from the stunning Maya frescoes of Bonampak to the folk art that appears on pulquerias and shops through Mexico, and highlighting the landmark murals created during the Mexican renaissance.

During the 1930s, Alvarez Bravo tried his hand at motion pictures, working with some of the giants of the industry like Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Bunuel. Even though he decided that it was not his medium, one iconic image came out of this experience. As Alvarez Bravo later described it, he was filming in Tehuantepec when he heard sharp noises. Thinking it was fireworks from a local fiesta, he asked a bystander to help him lug his camera to the train station, the source of the noise. There he came upon the body of a murdered striker. His photograph became Striking Worker, Assassinated. The young man lies in a pool of blood, an arm stretched toward the viewer, reminiscent of the foreshortening techniques employed by the muralists.

Alvarez Bravo was born February 4, 1902, at 20 Guatemala Street, just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral that fronts on Mexico City's zocalo, or main square. In light of later characterizations of his work as imbued with "layers of meaning," this biographical detail is significant. The zocalo has been at the center of the political and economic structure of the city--and therefore the country--for nearly seven centuries. Just down the street from his birthplace, the flutes and rattles of Aztec dancers echo long-ago ceremonies at the ruins of the Templo Mayor. In this setting, an "optical parable" may consist of watching a departing jet over the Spanish colonial building that houses the Presidential Palace, or viewing disaffected workers staging a protest around the huge Mexican flag, with its eagle and serpent emblematic of the buried Aztec city Tenochtitlan

The dictator Porfirio Diaz was still in power when Manuel Alvarez Bravo entered this world. Few people have witnessed more dramatic changes than this centenarian. By the time he reached his teenage years, the Mexican Revolution was raging. In the 1920s, once the Revolution was over and Jose Vasconcelos returned from exile to serve as minister of education, artists from Europe and the U.S. descended on Mexico City.

"Where else to be at that time?" asks Francesco Siqueiros. "Most of the opinion is that Mexico is where you see the gods suspended in the air. The whole country is surrealistic. You have an incredible mixture of pre-Hispanic and European presence."

Among the international photographers who gravitated to Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s were Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Paul Strand, all of whom would have a bearing on Alvarez Bravo's career. Examples of their photography were juxtaposed with the work of the Mexican master in Optical Parables (which also traveled to Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Arte). Alvarez Bravo's study of the hands of Rufino Tamayo, a 1998 print from a 1931 negative, recalls a Modotti photograph of the hands of a worker resting on a tool.

Alvarez Bravo met Modotti in 1927, some four years after her arrival in Mexico. Impressed with his work, she sent some of his photographs to her friend and former lover Edward Weston for display in an exhibition in Germany. Though they arrived too late for the exhibition, Weston's reply hit a high note of encouragement: "I must tell you how much I am enjoying them [the photographs]. Sincerely, they are important--and if you are a new worker, photography is fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint."

When Modotti was expelled from Mexico because of her political activism, she turned over to Alvarez Bravo both her camera and her assignment photographing paintings and murals. "With the muralists, I learned to see," he later remarked. He also embarked on a series of travels throughout Mexico, documenting customs and crafts, folklore and festivals, for the magazine Mexican Folkways.

In 1931, Alvarez Bravo entered a photographic competition sponsored by the Tolteca Cement Company. Among the other entrants was his first mentor, Hugo Brehme, a German photographer who had been living and photographing in Mexico. Alvarez Bravo, at the time still considered an amateur, walked away with first prize for photography. His winning entry: a spare, cubist abstraction in which light and shadow highlight planes of concrete and gravel. His triumph offended the ranks of professional photographers, still entrenched in a pictorial style of photography, even while it encouraged him to launch a career as a photographer.

Alvarez Bravo had his first one-man show of photographs at Galeria Posada in Mexico City in 1932. Shortly afterward, he met the established photographers Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1935 he exhibited with Cartier-Bresson in Mexico City and New York, the second time with additional photographs from Walker Evans. From all these artists, "Alvarez Bravo was getting an extremely cosmopolitan education in art and photography and how to look at things," says Conway. "But it's complicated to say how much is their influence on him. Perhaps they're drawn to him because his work is so naturally aligned with what they're interested in."

One of the French surrealists who was captivated by Alvarez Bravo's work was Andre Breton. The story goes that Alvarez Bravo was standing in line waiting for his paycheck (for teaching photography at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes de San Carlos) when he received a message from Breton asking him to create a cover image for the catalogue of a surrealist exhibition. Alvarez Bravo enthusiastically agreed, enlisting a young woman as model and recruiting a doctor friend to wrap her strategically in bandages. The result was The Good Reputation Sleeping. Though the photograph was never used as intended because of censorship concerns, it has become one of the artist's most iconic images.

But Alvarez Bravo never considered himself a surrealist. "Breton and the French surrealists saw things in his work that they were interested in," says Conway. "There's a lot of fantasy in his work. On the other hand, it's clearly grounded in reality. There's a factual and documentary strain, but at the same time a poetic, fantastic, almost magical aspect to it."

Clearly, Alvarez Bravo resists categorization. His work has ranged from pictorialism through abstract compositions, landscapes, portraits (especially riveting are his studies of fellow artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros), sensuous nudes, and his studies of anonymous people engaged in everyday activities.

In Mexico City, a flurry of Alvarez Bravo exhibitions ushered in the year 2002. El Ojo de Manuel Alvarez Bravo (The Eye of Manuel Alvarez Bravo) continues as a permanent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno, in the room named after the artist. At Galeria del Aeropuerto a cycle of expositions through February 18, 2003, highlights recurring themes in the work of the master photographer.

Imagenes de un siglo (Images of a Century) tours the Federal District and all the states of the republic through the end of the year; fittingly, the photographs are shown simultaneously in public spaces such as plazas and parks. Starting November 6, Alvarez Bravo's art comes full circle with a grouping first shown in 1935: Alvarez Bravo, his old friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans. Miradas convergentes (Convergent Views) shows at the Palacio de Bellas Artes until February 9.

No less than four Alvarez Bravo exhibitions have been presented during the past decade at Rose Shoshana's Santa Monica gallery, from a collection that is probably the largest in the United States. Shoshana has been traveling to Mexico City "six or seven times a year" for the past few years, conferring with Alvarez Bravo and examining negatives from his extensive archives that have never before been printed. She estimates that 98 percent of the images in their forthcoming book will be new.

"I think people had put him in a box as a `quaint' Mexican photographer," says Shoshana. "He is so much bigger than that. That is becoming more and more clear as we uncover images that were not focused on in those days because the thinking was they wanted to show the work that said Mexico. Even though he would be the first to say that Mexico is his landscape, he photographed with the eyes of an international artist."

Discussing his legacy, Shoshana cites Alvarez Bravo's aura of timelessness, infused with the poetic quality that thoughtful observers have often noted in the photographer's work. "He incorporates visual and semantic poetry into his compositions. He takes things out of their context and transforms them into objects of great interest. He helps us to look at the world with new eyes."

Alvarez Bravo has steadfastly declined to comment on his own work. "One of the things I've heard him say frequently is that he lets other people decide where his work falls," continues Shoshana. "But I think he's well aware of the quality of his work and what his place is in the history of photography. He is one of the great modernists of the twentieth century."

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a freelance writer based in California and a previous contributor to Americas.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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