NYTimes - Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Álvarez Bravo surrealist themes discussed by Teju Cole

October 20, 2016

Photography critic and author Teju Cole discusses the surrealist themes in the work of Mexican photographers Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Álvarez Bravo for the Sunday 23 October print magazine of the New York Times.


Graciela Iturbide,  Jueves Santo, Juchitán, Oaxaca , 1986

Graciela Iturbide, Jueves Santo, Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1986

"What makes an image surreal is not the artful crafting of illusion but the eruption of the accidental into the everyday.

Look at the photograph by Graciela Iturbide of a small child held on someone’s lap. The child is a boy, and the person holding him is his older sister. What is the first impression the photograph gives? It isn’t one of sweetness or innocence, but rather of a strangeness that is difficult to identify. The boy’s eyes are closed. His head is thrown back at what could be read as an unnatural angle, but could just as well be read as perfectly natural. Something seems not quite right. Is he sick? The composition recalls paintings or sculptures of the Pietà, where the Madonna carries the dead Christ. But here, the girl is too small, too fragile, to be a mother, and that peculiarity of scale is odd, too."


Manuel Álvarez Bravo, c. 1940's

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, c. 1940's

"This talent for finding the surreal in the banal is one of the many ways in which Iturbide is influenced by Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002), her teacher and mentor. Drawing on the Mexican traditions that confront death, they both created densely poetic images. Look, for example, at Bravo’s photograph of a fallen sheet, made in the 1940s. By chance or by design, a white cloth rests on a tiled floor. This simple subject opens up a cascade of associations: the cloth looks like a shroud; its folds and bends appear to trace the contours of a human body; its placement on the ground makes you think of a corpse. This picture, an ancestor to the one Hernandez posted on Instagram, echoes another by Bravo, “Striking Worker, Assassinated” (1934), which shows a union leader lying in the street with a bloodied face moments after he was murdered. But what was raw photojournalistic reportage in the earlier picture is transformed into a different kind of strength in Bravo’s photograph of the fallen sheet. The dead man is an instance of death, but the sheet on the floor becomes Death itself."


Read the beautiful piece on nytimes.com and pick up a printed copy of the Sunday paper on 23 October, 2016.

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