(11/55) Manuel Alvarez Bravo - photographer


One of the problems that comes with appreciating photography is that the differences between a 'good' photograph and a 'great' photograph appear very easy to understand. And that the more photographs you look at the easier it becomes to know instantly which category a photograph or series of photographs 'belongs' to. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it average? Is it great? Is it landscape? Is it art? Is it documentary? Is it street photography? Is it personal photography. Is it 'just' commercial? And so on.

The rise of the internet, and the ease with which photographs can be accessed and distributed tends to accelerate this largely internalised process of how to judge and evaluate photographs.
But does access to more photography make us smarter? Are we better photographers for seeing so much extra photography? Or does the flood of imagery available to us, actually make it harder to concentrate on what we see? To slow down. To think and look.To truly see rather than just skim or browse?

As I write this, I'm conscious of my own prejudices and perceptions.
The simple truth is that as we get used to looking at photographs (and this especially true for those of us who've been looking at photographs over a period of several decades) we accumulate preferences and prejudices and filters that alter our perception of what we're looking at.
Which makes the job of understanding and perceiving photographs that much harder.

Often the end result is that 'quiet' work tends to get overlooked in favour of photographs that are about  eccentric, extreme or abstract subjects or processes Think Diane Arbus vs Robert Adams or Richard Avedon vs Saul Leiter

But am I saying that more obscure or reflective work is better in some qualitative way?  That it has more value? Actually no. Just that it deserves (and rewards) equal attention, which is one of my primary motives for writing this series of essays.

Which neatly brings us to the subject of this particular article: Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902 – 2002.)

For many years, Alvarez Bravo carried the burden of being the first major art photographer to come out of Mexico.That widely held view is not strictly accurate as he wasn't the first prominent Mexican artist to use photography. Tina Modotti* was already established by the time the younger photography bought his first camera in 1924 and also Hugo Brehmein (see below.)
(*It was Modotti actually, who several years later introduced Alvarez-Bravo to a number of intellectuals and artists in Mexico City, including the American photographer Edward Weston.)

Legends and reputations aside, Manuel Alvarez Bravo was born in Mexico City, the son of a teacher. An evidently creative man who also worked as a painter, photographer & writer.

(Personal note: While I can't speak to Alvarez-Bravo's personal psychology, as the son of a teacher/painter myself, I can say that seeing art being made routinely in the home, in a domestic setting. As a 'normal' or even routine activity had a profound liberating effect on my own creativity and sense of purpose.)

In terms of history, Alvarez Bravo was eight years old when the Mexican Revolution began and would have experienced all that entailed including hearing gunfire and routinely seeing dead bodies in the streets as a child. Anyone seeing such sights one imagines, would be affected to some extent by the experience and Alvarez Bravo seems no exception, as his later photographs were to prove.

But he didn't begin adult life was an artist. He studied accounting at night for a while but then switched to classes in art at the Academy of San Carlos. Alvarez Bravo met Hugo Brehmein (see photographs below) in 1923 and then a year later bought his first camera.


He began experimenting with it, with some advice from Brehme and other photographers via subscriptions to photography magazines, but didn't receive or request formal training in photography.
He became a freelance photographer full-time in 1930, quitting his government job. That same year, Tina Modotti was deported from Mexico for political activities and she left Alvarez Bravo her camera and her job at Mexican Folkways magazine.

Looking at some early examples of Alvarez-Bravo's work one is struck but just how modern it seems. And confident. In researching this article and looking the dates images were taken, I'm struck by how fresh they are.

In terms of what he's looking at and how he's making prints, it's clear to me that his way of thinking & seeing is comparable in terms of vision and working methods to leading photographers working at that time like Edward Weston, or Ansel Adams.

It's striking looking at the landscapes below that the images are quite tonal, in that there is a graduated and articulated range of contrast from white to black, but they are also quite graphic. He's very aware of lines and outlines in the relatively sparse landscapes around him, and his photographs show his awareness.
His framing is also very 'tight'. I haven't seen his negatives, but from the evidence of the prints he's seems acutely aware of the placement of objects within the frame and how the edges of the frame can be used to create dynamic compositions.

Sands and Pines (1920's)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)
Cactus landscape
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)


The mouths (1963)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)

If you look at the 'Landscape of sown fields' (below) See the plant in the bottom right left corner?  To my eyes, it seems a perfect compliment to what's happening (in the top left corner and the top right corner) and also to the bottom right hand corner.
The composition isn't forced. Its not 'clever' framing just unobtrusive. Expert. And definitely not accidental.

Landscape of sown fields
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


The image (below) is another example. There are many viewpoints he could have chosen if his intention was to show the house and roof tiles and include the plant.
The way the camera is tilted, its probably pointing up from a slightly lower than 'normal' angle, assuming the plants are not raised on a high bed. The apex of the roof is just about touching the top of the frame. The leaves of the plant parallel the eaves and also point to the centre of the frame.The shadows on the front of the building also slant downwards, looking, with their angled outlines ever so slightly like leaves themselves.
Again. Simple. Dynamic. Satisfying. Complete.

The issue with images like this, is that they can appear so 'natural' or normal, that the art, craft and importantly the perception that preceded their creation can often go unremarked or unnoticed.
 
 
Window on the agaves
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)


As I mentioned earlier, with reference to his images of landscapes, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo seems to have had an innate 'sense' of the landscapes around him and how to reveal them using photography.
He was also sensitive to surfaces and shape. And light.
The influence of Edward Weston was I'm sure helpful to him, demonstrating ways in which surfaces could be revealed using a camera and daylight.

Take for example the image below. A rough series of steps between buildings which through careful exploration by the camera takes on a sculptural, emotional significance that is so much more than the labels and descriptions used to describe what it is.
For me, I don't know why, but the image is deeply satisfying. It is of course a wonderful print, expressing a rich modulation of tone and shapes. But it's also something more. Something I feel as well as something I can see.

To me, this is where the real power of photography lies. The ability to transform what is seen into something else. Something different. Something 'other'.

 Window to the choir
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


Alvarez-Bravo, as mentioned earlier, subscribed to magazines and was also fortunate in making contact with a number of leading international artists, so was quite aware of trends in modern art.
One movement, which had does seem to have been influenced by was Surrealism as the 4 photographs by Alvarez-Bravo (below) illustrate.

SIDE BAR:  It's interesting to me how much context can determine or influence at any rate, how we view photographs. Where one photographer for example, Walker Evans (below) produced images of decay referencing popular culture which are viewed as variously: iconic/ironic/acerbic/documentary etc) Alvarez-Bravo's images, of similar subject matter, have in contrast been seen within a more limited range of possible meanings.

If there is a difference, it's one of intention. My own interpretation of the differences between these photographers is that Evans is acutely aware of the decay and irony in his images. As a writer and cultural critic, they are all evidence which cumulatively point to deficiencies in the economic and cultural life of his time.

Alvarez-Bravo's images, seem to me, given his contacts with Edward Weston and his explorations of content & form, rather more playful explorations of context & meaning. The captions certainly point to a less analytical or culturally nuanced point of view than Evans. 

(Walker Evans)  Stamped Tin Relic-1929
(copyright Walker Evans/
respective copyright holders)
 Angel of the quake
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)
 The big fish eats the little one (1932)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)


(Walker Evans) Minstrel Poster, Alabama 1936
(copyright Walker Evans/
respective copyright holders)
(Walker Evans) Torn Movie Poster, 1931
(copyright Walker Evans/
respective copyright holders)

 
Two pairs of legs (1928/9)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders)


Elephant in the sky
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 



Alvarez-Bravo's images of people are fascinating. In some regards for me, one of the most interesting (and less celebrated) aspect of his work. From his formal portraits of individuals from the arts world, to his photographs of individuals in urban settings to more expressive photographs of people in urban settings.

And of course his signature image: Striking worker assassinated (1934.)

It's a classic image. Deeply shocking because we are witness to someones dead body. We know what's happened because we can see from the pose and the quantity of blood what has happened but the caption confirms anyway what we've just seen. And tells us that he was murdered and also why.

But the sum total of facts. Of knowing. Somehow doesn't begin the describe our shock at witnessing the death of another human being.


Striking worker assassinated (1934)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Rufino Tamayo
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

Rene d'harnoncourt (1930's)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Sergei Eisenstein (1930's)`
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 



Less successful (for me) from the brief selection here are the images titled The Daydream and The Dreamer. As informal portraiture I like them. But the poetic labels tend to suggest another intended 'meaning'. But that may just be one of my internal filters at work. A prejudice against poetic labels for photographs perhaps?

The dreamer (1931)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
The daydream (1931)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

 
Man from Papantla (1934)~
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

The crouched ones (1934)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


Running boy (1950's)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

San Rafael series (d & a) (1955)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

San Rafael series (b & c) (1955)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Pilgrim among Worldy Things (1939)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

The Color (1966)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
..And his shadow (1964)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
 Red shadows (1964)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


What is interesting about being a photographer is that you can't help reflecting the culture you are part of, consciously or unconsciously if you spend a lot of time photographing in your own country.
And Manuel Alvarez-Bravo was no exception. 

In his case, this was particularly evident in his photographs of religious ceremonies and of the cultural rituals surrounding death. Often showing both at the same time.

Mexico Latin is not the USA. Nor is it Europe. It has its own historical & cultural sensibilities. Chief among them is a unique sensibility (or perhaps just a different sensibility regarding death.
Death is regarded as more enjoined to life. And so is often celebrated without the distaste and uncomfortable emotional resonance seen in many Western countries.

The Spirit of the People (1927)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Posthumous portrait (1939)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
The Visit (1935)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Crown of Thorns (1925)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


The term magic realism is often associated with Latin American artists & writers (including notably Gabriel García Márquez.) It's not so often associated with photographers, which is odd as it's a term that would seem to be accurate in describing a lot of Alvarez-Bravo's most recognisable works.

Defined as art where "magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment" it seems to sum up the indefinable 'atmosphere' in many of his works.
Personally I'm not sure about the how magic would be shown in a photograph. But I do think the words symbolism & allegory are probably more appropriate in describing what is at work in some of his signature images.

Take the image (below.) It's a posed photograph. But it's not a nude. The woman is not completely naked. The bandages don't cover her most intimate body parts. And her pubic hair is exposed, drawing attention precisely because it is uncovered.
The spiny (fruit?) lying alongside her on the rug are there because? Questions are posed. 

I won't comment on the title of the photograph (remember my filters?) but it's clearly a provocation. As is the photograph. But about what?

The Good Reputation Sleeping (1939)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 



And then there's this image. 'The threshold' (1947.) Someone entering a room in bare feet. Exposed. Vulnerable. It's a black and white photograph so we can't be sure what's on the floor. We want to believe it's water. It probably is. But something, perhaps an inner voice in our heads tells us it it may be blood.

We already know it's a threshold into a room. But if it is indeed pools of blood on the floor, is it a threshold to death? To something darker from a lighter place? 

More unanswered questions.

The threshold (1947)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 

The Obstacles
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 
Box of visions (1938)
(copyright Manuel Alvarez-Bravo/
respective copyright holders) 


Like another photographer with a long career I've written about, (Bill Brandt) Manuel Alvarez Bravo's work was justly celebrated during his lifetime. Not just by fellow photographers like Edward Weston and Paul Strand (who he briefly worked with) and film-maker Luis Buñuel (who he also worked with) but also museums, galleries and via many exhibitions of his work, with members of the public.

He taught photography in the 1930's and also during the 1960s so was able to encourage and nurture successive generations of photographers.
Share on Google Plus

About Nick_L

This is a short description in the author block about the author. You edit it by entering text in the "Biographical Info" field in the user admin panel.

0 comments :