Frames from the streets of grace.
Born in Mexico City "behind the cathedral, in the place where the temples of ancient Mexican gods must have been built," Alvarez Bravo dwells today in Coyoacan on the south side of the city. From the bustling commercial avenue connecting Coyoacan, with San Angel, his residential street twists and turns its cobbled way up a little hill. At the crest of Calle Espiritu Santo, both adjacent to the human roar of the city and discretely removed from it, Manuel Alvarez Bravo lives and works. He has journeyed across the twentieth century from behind the cathedral to arrive at the street of the holy spirit, recording along the way his personal vision for all to see.
After years of maintaining a darkroom in his home, Alvarez Bravo has spent the last decade working in the airy rooms of a separate adobe building across the street. Around a sunny courtyard that often doubles as an open-air studio, a series of high-ceilinged rooms are filled with props, stacks of graphic art, reference books, posters, and personal memorabilia that are all part of his artistic life. Small desks and comfortable chairs abound, for each room is both a place to work and a sitting room to talk and think. One wing is devoted to the technical side of his work--the laboratory, darkroom and print-mounting equipment.
On this particular day, the photographer's darkroom technicians are making proof prints from his most recent "street" assignment. He explains that while he makes many pictures in the studio these days, he also goes out to photograph spontaneous scenes in the neighborhoods on the south side of Mexico City.
"The most recent one is from the fiestas of the First of the Year, of the Baby Jesus in Coyoacan and San Angel," he says. But he carefully points out that he did not attend to document a social or religious occasion. "I did not take photographs of the fiesta itself, but of the activities going on at the sidelines."
He likens the resulting images to some of his famous early photographs of dancers. He was not interested in capturing the action of dance, but made pictures of the individual dancers in their unscripted, unselfconscious movements.
"I don't go out to take photographs with a plan," he says. "I take the pictures with my eye, not my mind. I respond to what I see and try to find the image in what happens." He shrugs. "Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn't."
He makes the process sound almost casual--as if his intuition, judgment and technical virtuosity did not enter into the formula. He is being deliberately ingenuous, knowing well that the photographer trains as long and hard as any athlete for the critical moment when his skills, talent and experience are challenged.
In fact, experience is key to Alvarez Bravo's philosophy of the artist. The medium is almost irrelevant, he says. Photography in itself is not an art. Two people with cameras can view the same scene; one may produce a snapshot, while the other may create an image of lasting artistic value. Art is not produced by the medium, but rather by the individual.
"The artist is led to his art by his experience," Alvarez Bravo says. "He does not blow in the wind like a weathervane, but his experience colors how he sees the world. In my case, my experience includes music, literature, the plastic arts--all part of being human."
Even with an accumulation of experience, Alvarez Bravo maintains that his intuitive approach to picture-taking inevitably produces many images that do not quite work. He is ruthless in culling the good from the almost-good images, more ruthless yet in choosing those to print as part of his body of collected work. The fiesta pictures have worked out, he says, and he and his assistants will print a small suite that should be concluded in June or July. But they are still in progress, not ready for viewing.
ALMOST EVERYONE knows at least one Manuel Alvarez Bravo photograph, though not necessarily as the artist's work. The most widely reproduced image is the mysterious Good reputation sleeping, 1938-39, made partly as a joke to satisfy a request from Andre Breton, the guru of surrealism. Likewise, his formal portrait of painter Frida Kahlo is perhaps the best-known photograph of her. Other images proliferate on calendars or postcards--mostly street scenes that intimate emotions without ever quite stating them.
"Revelaciones: The Art of Manuel Alvarez Bravo" brings a total of 113 of the artist's images into close focus, but the exhibition is only a hint of the full body of work. Thousands of completed photographs exist in the archives, and an untold number of developed negatives have never been printed. With two assistants and a top-quality darkroom at his disposal, Alvarez Bravo is tackling a daunting task--catching up on old negatives, some of them from recent years, others dating back several decades.
The images, he says, "are not copies." That is, they are not reprints of finished work. "They are negatives I have but that I have never been able to print. I've saved and saved and saved," he says. He adds sheepishly that working with a 35 millimeter camera, with rolls of 36 exposures each, has sometimes made the deluge of negatives overwhelming. "The 35 millimeter camera complicates the problem," he says. "I take too many pictures, to thoroughly protect myself in case I want to make revisions."
Now he is selecting from the old negatives and printing for his archives, filling in a body of work that stretches forward from 1924. On the daybed in his studio reception room are two large print boxes bulging under their cloth ties. They are full of proof prints from the old negatives--but not necessarily images he will keep as part of his completed work.
While Alvarez Bravo takes photographs intuitively, he is extremely selective about which images will survive and a stickler for technically perfect prints. At the same time, he dismisses a fascination with photographic technique, pointing out that while Ansel Adams turned the science of photography into a tool for creating great emotion, some of his followers employ those technical lessons mechanically, ignoring the content of the image. Indeed, when he speaks of his years as a photography teacher (1940-1959), he wearily concedes that most students were interested simply in technique.
As he assembles his archive, Alvarez Bravo is tacitly setting standards by which his work will be judged ever after. The prints vary in format and printing technique. Many are printed with conventional silver halide emulsions on heavyweight paper and mounted on boards. Others, particularly those with extremely fine shades of gray tones, are printed using the platinum or palladium printing process he first learned from Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti in 1928. The resulting prints on fine graphic art papers have a tactile depth unachievable with conventional gelatin-coated photographic printing papers.
The appeal of these precious metal prints is understandable, but Alvarez Bravo refuses to be programmatic about which form of printing he will use. As he shows the laboratory outside the darkroom, a large palladium print of one of his nudes is casually tacked on a piece of equipment. It is The black robe, 1986, a seated nude torso with a black robe fallen to her waist. He is trying to decide if the precious metal print is approapriate.
"Glossy papers coated with gelatin usually have a brilliance that I like," he says. "The brilliance of the paper is like the brilliance of the skin." On the other hand, this reddish print de-emphasizes the sensual quality of the nude in favor of accenting the formal design. He is trying to make choices, to find the optimal presentation for each image.
Although Alvarez Bravo exercises meticulous care in selecting his images and preparing them for presentation, he feels strongly that once he relinquishes them, they belong to the viewer. One of his favorite rebuffs to requests for interviews is the admonition to "have discourse with the photographs, not the photographer." The finished work of art should stand on its own. Indeed, he encourages the viewer to approach the photographs as he, the photographer, has approached the scene--find the meaning and beauty that appears to you.
The nominal subjects of Alvarez Bravo's photographs are often clearly Mexican. The faces of the people and the facades of the architecture both combine Mesoamerican and Spanish elements in the classic mestizo synthesis. The landscapes, it seems, could be no place else on earth. Teh visual vocabulary that Alvarez Bravo has developed is essentially colloquial. As his friend and colleague Diego Rivera wrote, ". . . the photography of Manuel Alvarez Bravo is Mexican by cause, form and content, anguish is omnipresent and atmoshere is supersaturated with irony."
Alvarez Bravo demurs from the thunder and lightning Rivera attributes to him, gently sidestepping the political implications of such praise. For all his pride in helping to create a distinctly Mexican art, Alvarez Bravo does not see the references to his country and culture as obstacles to understanding the work. No successful work of art, he says, depends on the nationality of its author or its viewer.
A comprehension of Mexico may not be required, but an active imagination and a keen eye are. Alvarez Bravo's photographs demand attentive engagement, for they always hint at a larger part of reality that extends beyond the frame. His images are never as naive as they might appear at first glance. On second look, they revolutionize the conventions of photography as a realistic medium.
WHEN ALVAREZ BRAVO bought his first camera in 1924 (a Century Master 25), photography was in its adolescence. The earliest Mexican photographs date from around 1840, near the invention of the medium, but photography did not become widespread in Mexico until the end of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere, it became a credible art--a honest means to replicate the world in black and white with a studio portrait of a loved one, a record of carnage in battle, a traveller's vista of the Mexican landscape. Popular culture embraced this medium for its ability to document and record with absolute fidelity to reality.
But Alvarez Bravo, essentially self-trained, changed the rules by bringing poetic sensibility to a previously prosaic medium. In his hands, the camera became not a device to reproduce the external world, but a window--complete with frame--to illuminate a metaphorical or symbolic truth about some small portion of that world. From the outset, his tyle has spoken in a simple, colloquial voice, almost as if to say, "Here's what I saw today."
The effect is startling. Because Alvarez Bravo works primarily in black and white, his images retain much of the feel of early documentary photographs. Nonetheless, the most significant part of an Alvarez Bravo photograph is often what is missing from the frame and, therefore, must be imagined by the viewer. This paradox is most explicit in Washerwomen implied, a 1932 image of laundry spread out on maguey cactus to dry. No washerwomen are in sight. It is, he says, one of his "absent portraits." Similarly, his 1960 image of a bicycle leaning against a painted wall, The appointment, Paris, implies a mysterious, perhaps romantic tale of a rendezvous.
The painted legs on the wall of The appointment, Paris, also strike another of Alvarez Bravo's themes--the human mark on architecture. His commercial work over four decades frequently involved photographing murals. (From 1955 to 1981, he served as chief photographer of La Fonda Editorial de la Plastica Mexicana, which publishes books of Mexican art.) But his interest in "marks on the walls" extends beyond depictions of other artist's works. He reveals the poignancy in advertising art, impromptu paintings, graffiti and handprints. In each case, the walls speak: Someone passed this way.
The photographer also seeks human communication in the angles of hands and feet--gestures that tell a story. The crossed feet of the young woman in The daughter of the dancers, 1933, is echoed in The crouched ones, 1932-34. (Both are, in effect, also "absent portraits" in that the girl's face is obscured and the drinkers' heads entirely lost in shadow.) Both photographs also evoke prehispanic counterparts. Although the photograph was taken in Puebla, the girl approximates the position of one of the danzantes--early figures carved on the walls of the ancient Zapotec-Mixtec city of Monte Alban. The drinkers on their stools could be a frieze from any number of Mayan sites. A simple movement of the arm or position of the foot can erase a thousand years of history.
Alvarez Bravo enjoys playing with time, as if it were an amorphous medium to be stretched or compressed as he sees fit. Indeed, his images often exist outside time, save a hint from clothing style or the presence of an automobile. Portrait of the eternal, 1935, depicts an image entirely removed from time--exactly the opposite of conventional photography which captures a moment and freezes it for eternity. With his title, the artist tells us not that this moment is frozen, but that it recurs again and again.
Titles of Alvarez Bravo's photographs are usually evocative and often a little maddening. "They are not guides to seeing the photograph, he says. "They are juxtapositions." And he enjoys the disturbing effect they have on some viewers. Octavio Paz calls the titles "flaming arrows"--not irrelevant to the photograph they identify, but attention-grabbers in themselves.
Questioned on his titles, Alvarez Bravo explains that all photographs need individual names. Otherwise, how could they be sold! But he also finds merely descriptive names boring. The title should be a snippet of poetry that directs the viewer to references outside the frame. For example, Venus, 1977, plays with the mutilation of the Venus de Milo--except that Alvarez Bravo decapitates her with the edge of the frame and amputates her arms with shadow. Landscape and gallop, 1932, plays with the traditional passivity of landscape--the "real" object in the photograph--and the apparent activity of the "gallop," which is merely paint.
These are little jokes, small ironies. It would be easy to concentrate on the serious and intellectual side of Alvarez Bravo's work and miss the point that he is a trickster. Photography is a medium of deception--rendering the three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional image--and Alvarez Bravo delights in presenting objects and ideas that are not always what they seem.
Mischievously, he plucks a color photograph from a stack on his desk in the chief studio sitting room. It appears to be a strip of landscape floating in mid-sky. He holds it for a minute to let the sense of wonder sink in. Then he flips the images upside down, revealing it as a small islland on a lake so reflective that the whole world becomes an ocean of sky. "A trick on the eye," he chuckles.
At heart, Alvarez Bravo believes in the lightness of being. He chastises critics for making too much of his symbolism of light and dark as parallels for life and death. It is really a technical matter, he suggests. Light cannot be shown directly with photograhy--it is the absence of shadow. Of course, the photographs balance light and dark, and the subject matter may even hint at life and death. "But more life!" he asserts. "More life!"
To illustrate what he means, he leafs through Mucho Sol, his 1989 monograph of 64 images published by Rio de Luz in Mexico. The title photograph, made in 1988, is a nude with her body arched to bright sunlight. He turns back a few pages to Angels on a truck, a photograph from 1930. On the wall behind the plaster angels is the word vidrios, a pun on the transparency of his intention. He traces the shoulders of the angels with his forefinger, flips back to the nude. The musculature is identical, as if she is an angel come to life in his courtyard. "See?" he says, smiling and shrugging at the same time.
With Alvarez Bravo, moments of grace are everywhere for those who are prepared to perceive them.
David Lyon is a poet and art critic living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; works of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Mexico's greatest photographer|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1991|
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