Los Angeles Times

The Eye Thinks : The Beauty and Sorrow of Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Mexico

AMONG THE WORKS of Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo is an image made in 1935 of a young woman seated in half shadow, wearing a dressing gown and striped shawl. Intruding through an unseen window is a prism of light, whose shape forms an uncanny, expanding echo of her profile. As she pulls back her long, shimmering hair, she stares into a pocket mirror. In it, she can see what she obviously already knows: that she is extraordinarily beautiful. Something else is also obvious. Her beauty terrifies her.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who will be honored with a major retrospective exhibition that opens July 12 at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, is known for selecting titles as deliberately as he chooses his subject matter. If so, what ageless truth does he imply with this likeness, which he named “Portrait of the Eternal”?
“The truth,” suggests Mexican cinematographer Antonio Reynoso, Alvarez Bravo’s friend and former student, “is that beauty is also terrible. It can paralyze the spirit. It can leave one breathless and immobile.” He and Alvarez Bravo, he explains, live in a country that has been ravished repeatedly for its beauty, with waves of Spanish, French and North Americans usurping its gold, silver, land and spirit. “ Don Manuel’s photographs show that beauty and terror--and, most of all, life and death--are everlasting companions. Norteamericanos try to blind themselves to this reality.”
The San Diego exhibition is intended to enlighten a North American audience largely unaware that, at age 88, Manuel Alvarez Bravo is considered one of the world’s great photographic masters. Besides being acclaimed internationally for his wide-ranging body of work, he is regarded as the father of the thriving Mexican photography movement, which, according to the museum’s director, Arthur Ollman, has produced some of the most original talent working in the medium today. Alvarez Bravo is, moreover, a living historical figure, a colleague and intimate of many of the century’s most important artists, including muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros; Rivera’s wife, painter Frida Kahlo; surrealist Andre Breton, and photographers Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Except for his friend Cartier-Bresson, living in Paris at age 82, Manuel Alvarez Bravo has survived them all. He resides in Coyoacan in southern Mexico City, a neighborhood of quiet cobbled streets and plazas shaded with laurels and ashes, where artists and poets drink espresso at outdoor cafes not far from the museum that was once the home of Kahlo and Rivera. Alvarez Bravo is a thin man, with gray hair swept back from a lined face that seems to gather light. His voice is clear, complaining softly of how tired he is, then quickening with pleasure as he mentions colleagues whose lives have enriched his own. But anecdotes of who did what with whom no longer interest him.
“There are books that tell about Tina, Diego, Clemente Orozco and Siqueiros,” he says. “But what another person says about them is not important. What their work says, is.” His own work provides a window into Mexican thought and perception, which Mexico’s intellectuals and artists chronically insist are misunderstood in the United States. Unlike the forceful, monumental landscapes by the most celebrated modern photographer of the United States, Ansel Adams, Alvarez Bravo’s photographic compositions are often subtle and mysterious. Rich with visual puns and ancient allusions, they lure a viewer into multiple levels of meaning and sensation. As literary laureate Octavio Paz writes in a poem that weaves an homage to Alvarez Bravo around several of his photographs’ titles:
. . . The eye thinks,
the thought sees,
the sight touches,
the words burn .
The differences between Adams and Alvarez Bravo reflect the contrast between their nations: one overwhelming the horizon with its blunt assertion of manifest destiny, the other always awaiting its mystical fate. Although Alvarez Bravo uses a camera, his vision derives from a land where, unlike the United States, technology has penetrated but never predominated. It is considered, rather, just another variant of a commonplace phenomenon in Mexican life: magic.
MANUEL ALVAREZ BRAVO was born within a block of El Zocalo, Mexico City’s vast central plaza. His family lived behind the Metropolitan Cathedral, northwest of the long, stone quadrangle of the National Palace. During his lifetime, the city has become the world’s most populous; archeologists believe that when the conquistador Hernan Cortez arrived in 1519--when it was Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire--it also held that distinction. In 1902, the year of his birth, Alvarez Bravo’s neighborhood comprised commercial streets and government offices, below which lay the ruins of an enormous temple. Like daydreams percolating up from the subconscious, the presence of this buried culture permeated the one superimposed above.
With our practical sense of events having a firm chronological order, North Americans easily can grow perplexed in a country like Mexico, where time assumes liquid properties or evaporates altogether. Many Alvarez Bravo photographs blithely assume the coexistence of then and now, such as a portrait of a Mayan boy with a stone carving of what is evidently his face--though the sculpture predates his birth by more than 1,000 years. Yet during Alvarez Bravo’s early years, a leader who ruled like an ancient king had tried to cleave Mexico’s past from its future and relegate its pre-Columbian heritage to mere memory.
The country was in its third decade under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Diaz had earned international adulation--including Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration that “among contemporary statesmen, there is none greater"--for his determination to haul Mexico into the 20th Century. In a country left bankrupt and mired after a succession of wars, including one with the United States in which it lost half its territory, Diaz built factories, opened mines and connected Mexico’s cities and frontiers with thousands of miles of railroad track. He financed his reforms with the cooperation of foreigners such as the Rockefellers, Hearsts and Guggenheims; they, in turn, received mineral, logging and ranching grants amounting to one-fifth of Mexico’s territory.
Of Mixtec Indian descent, Diaz increasingly regarded Mexico’s native traditions as primitive and embarrassing. During his reign, thousands of Yaqui and Mayan Indians were enslaved and shipped to cotton, rice and hemp plantations. The dictator, meanwhile, was busy recasting Mexico City in what his patrician wife imagined to be the quintessential image of sophistication: Paris. He built a wide boulevard called the Paseo de la Reforma to replicate the Champs Elysees and raised an opulent, Parisian-style Palace of Fine Arts, to be filled with works emulating classic European aesthetic traditions. In a country studded with pyramids, he imported stone blocks from Europe for a lavish assemblage of new public buildings.
One September morning when he was 8, Manuel Alvarez Bravo watched from the apartment of his godfather, a cashier in the Mexican treasury, as Diaz stood on the balcony of the Palacio Nacional and lorded regally over a massive demonstration. The dictator, resplendent in epaulets and plumed cap, was reviewing the largest celebration in Mexico’s history, commemorating the centennial of its declaration of independence. It was, in fact, Diaz’s final major public appearance; soon he would flee the country and the spreading nationwide peasant and Indian uprisings led by the likes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Alvarez Bravo’s school days henceforth were punctuated by recurrent cannon and artillery blasts outside his classrooms, as Mexico collapsed into savage, chaotic revolution. In the afternoon, he would return home under skies filled with vultures circling the corpses of soldiers lying in his path.
“We would find cartridges scattered on the ground. Chapultepec Park was filled with soldiers guarding the president’s home. They sat on the grass, playing strange, sad melodies on their harmonicas. All these things,” he says, “survive in the unconscious. They were dramatic events, but they also blended with daily life.”
By the time the fighting subsided, he was nearly 20. The daily events during his formative years included the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. Over the centuries, life in Mexico had encompassed Aztec ritual human sacrifice and an even bloodier transition to Christianity. Following that, millions of Indians succumbed to smallpox, measles and other plagues imported from Europe. When, in 1822, Mexican independence finally halted 300 years of colonialism, none of its heroes escaped execution during the brutal aftermath. Civil wars, raging poverty, violent repression and now devastating revolution had conspired to keep one age-old Mexican ritual alive, re-enacted annually in its cemeteries. Each Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, Mexicans flout death’s audacity at trying to separate them from their loved ones by partying with the deceased, picnicking on their graves while children exchange candy skulls decorated like valentines with each others’ names.
“Toy skeletons and sugary little skulls,” Alvarez Bravo likes to note, “are our most renowned popular art.” In 1934 he would make his most famous photograph, one that epitomizes this mingled essence of sweetness and sorrow. Taken during a labor strike, it shows a protesting factory worker moments after he is murdered. His face and hair are drenched in fresh, flowing blood, but the photographer somehow managed to avoid making a mere political document. Shot at a close, almost intimate, perspective, the result depicts not gore but release, even serenity. A glint in the supine victim’s eye suggests that death does not extinguish life, but furthers it.
Nissan Perez, director of photography at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and co-curator of the San Diego retrospective, has written that Alvarez Bravo often exhibits this image alongside one taken a year earlier titled “Public Thirst.” In it, a barefoot boy drinks at an outdoor fountain, a felicitous sunbeam crowning his hair with a halo. The title relates his poverty to the thirst of Mexico’s gods that has always been slaked by popular sacrifice; the striker’s impassioned death belongs to this tradition. Bloodshed repeatedly has nurtured growth and renewal in Mexico, and in no time did that prove truer than during the 1920s and 1930s after the revolution, a golden age that produced an astonishing outpouring of art and genius.
So many teachers had left Alvarez Bravo’s primary school to fight that by age 13 he was gone himself, working as a copy clerk. For the next few years, he tried various careers, studying accounting, music, painting and homeopathy, all without marked success. During that time, the father of one of his friends would sometimes bring home cameras from the Monte de Piedad, Mexico’s national pawnshop, which functions as bank for the poor. Alvarez Bravo was interested: Photography, he decided with relief, was something he could teach himself.
When he was 21, he met Hugo Brehme, a photographer from Dresden who had traveled from Panama to Yucatan on a magazine assignment, then decided he liked Mexico and stayed. Brehme led him to another expatriate photographer, Wilhelm Kahlo, whose daughter Frida would one day sit for one of Alvarez Bravo’s finest portraits. Brehme and Kahlo, both Germans, were not alone in Mexico. As the first major people’s revolt of the century, the revolution had focused worldwide attention on the country. Writers Ambrose Bierce and D. H. Lawrence, filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Paul Strand and photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti were other American and European artists to whom 20th-Century Mexico’s mystique, as well as its extraordinary quality of light, proved irresistible. To poet Andre Breton, the place virtually embodied surrealism. Their presence in the country reversed the traditional pilgrimage of Mexican artists to the Continent and to the United States, and in the years that Alvarez Bravo was Brehme’s assistant, Mexico’s own also were returning.
Diego Rivera had spent the war in Europe; now he left Cubism and joined Orozco and Alfaro Siqueiros in adorning Mexico’s public buildings. Their murals were a reaction against effete paintings confined to exclusive galleries; their subjects--the Indians, laborers and peasants who had reasserted claim to their homeland--were the antithesis of the old aristocratic values.
At 23, a lean young man with a mustache, his hair worn back and slightly long, Alvarez Bravo married his childhood sweetheart, Lola Martinez. As photography was not yet a paying alternative, he accepted a job in Oaxaca with the Treasury Department. He stayed for two years, during which he entered a regional photography contest, submitting a scene from Chapultepec Park. It was a safe image, respecting the norms of Brehme’s pictorial style: a rowboat on the lake, carefully framed by tree branches in the foreground. It won first prize.
Thus encouraged, when he and Lola returned to the capital in 1927, he immersed himself in the exhilaration swirling through the cafes around the San Carlos National Academy of Fine Arts near the Zocalo. During his absence, the American photographer Edward Weston had been living and working in Mexico City with his lover, the Italian actress Tina Modotti, herself a gifted photographer. Weston had returned to the States, but Modotti remained behind to photograph murals for Rivera, Orozco and Alfaro Siqueiros. Alvarez Bravo had seen the famous couple together previously and had been studying their images in magazines. Now he arranged to meet Modotti and show her his work.
One Weston still life, of a toilet, had been considered so disgraceful in Mexico that the magazine that printed it was forced to cease publication. Among the images that Modotti insisted that Alvarez Bravo send to Weston in California was one of a torso of a boy urinating into a porcelain bowl. He did so, with no explanation attached. An impressed Weston, having never heard of “M. Alvarez Bravo,” suspected that Tina had actually taken the pictures. He wrote back:
“I am wondering why I have been the recipient of a very fine series of photographs from you? . . . I must tell you how much I am enjoying them. Sincerely, they are important, and if you are a new worker, photography is fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint. . . . Perhaps the finest, for me, is the child urinating: finely seen and executed.”
Modotti introduced Alvarez Bravo to magazine editors and to Diego Rivera. Like many artists in the late ‘20s, both she and Rivera were members of the Communist Party, which in Mexico chiefly distinguished itself with ceaseless factionalism among its members. Rivera eventually was expelled for accepting bourgeois money to paint murals on government buildings, regardless of how many hammers and sickles he prominently featured. At one point, he personally escorted Leon Trotsky to Mexico City; Trotsky stayed with him and Frida Kahlo until an argument ended their friendship. Modotti, whose nude images scandalized conservative Mexicans, was implicated twice by the right-wing press as a murder suspect: first in the death of a Cuban party comrade, and second in an attempt on Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. For the latter charge, she was expelled from the country. Alvarez Bravo took her to the train depot. As she left Mexico City, she handed him her 8"-by-10" view camera.
Alvarez Bravo took her place as photographer to the muralists, a demanding opportunity that helped perfect his sense of visual composition. Unlike the flamboyant Rivera and the inflamed Alfaro Siqueiros, who was jailed frequently for his militant socialism, he was reserved, known as a meticulous worker and a listener. Although Alvarez Bravo joined the left-wing Revolutionary League of Writers and Artists, it was apparent that his passions lay in aesthetics, not politics.
Rivera encouraged him to find images in Mexico’s pueblos and sierras. What resulted was neither sentimentally picturesque nor folkloric, but an evocation of the unremarkable moments that add up to Mexico’s remarkable essence. Nothing like what he produced had ever been seen before: “Like a ray of light penetrating a darkened room, revealing the particles suspended in the air,” wrote Rivera. Through his lens, a dead tree in a field became a moaning apparition; a shadow formed a fantasy landscape; a brick kiln transmuted into an ancient city of burning pyramids and tombs.
When Rivera became the San Carlos Academy’s director, Alvarez Bravo joined the faculty. Backpacking his tripod and view camera, he would take students to the high plains of Lake Texcoco, the watery surroundings of the Aztec island empire until Diaz contracted the British to drain it. On such an arid steppe, Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo set his masterpiece “Pedro Paramo,” which portrayed a village where both protagonist and readers could barely tell the living from the dead--they themselves didn’t know.
Here, Alvarez Bravo produced pictures such as one innocently titled “A Horse for Riding on Sundays.” In it, a rider gallops through a barren landscape past a huddled peasant family he never notices. It is Alvarez Bravo’s only known photo of a live horse--but strange, sometimes sinister, wooden or toy equines appear so often in his work that today nearly every aspiring Mexican photographer eventually aims his camera at one. Is this an intentional, symbolic reference to the mounts ridden by the conquistadors, who tricked the Indians into believing they were centaurlike gods?
To this day, Alvarez Bravo sidesteps interpretations of his images, suggesting that people ask his photographs, not him, what they mean. “Shoot what you see, not what you think. A photographer’s philosophy should be not to have one,” he’d reply when students would try to probe his creative processes. In 1939, when Breton invited him to take part in a surrealist exhibition, he obligingly concocted an appropriately strange scenario: a nude model, her feet and loins partially wrapped in bandages, lying on a blanket surrounded by spiny cactus buds. Intended to be a spoof, the result--cryptically titled “Good Reputation Sleeping"--was so arresting that it became one of his most intensely analyzed photographs. Alvarez Bravo confesses that all the intrigue surrounding the picture led him to wonder himself what had inspired it. After identifying elements ranging from ballet rehearsals he’d witnessed to boyhood readings of Rousseau, he concluded: “You bring your accumulated life to the moment that something sparks you to make an image. Everything influences you. And it’s all good.”
HECTOR GARCIA was a student at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute in the early 1940s when he joined the emergency Mexican labor force that headed north to keep the United States functioning during World War II. One night in New York, while uncovering railroad tracks buried by a blizzard, an unscheduled military train hurtled through. The workers pressed themselves against the sides of the icy tunnel they’d excavated, but after it passed, the snow appeared to be covered with bright red poppies. Garcia, who carried a Brownie camera in his lunch pail, made several shots to record the wartime martyrdom of a Mexican bracero. His images, however, turned out blank--he had not known how to compensate for the snow’s reflection.
The incident convinced him he should study photography. Back in Mexico City, he did so under Alvarez Bravo; eventually, Garcia became Mexico’s most esteemed photojournalist, his work appearing in newspapers worldwide and in Time-Life publications. What he learned from Alvarez Bravo was not so much technique as attitude. “ Don Manuel is that perfect Mexican mixture of two worlds, knowing what a European knows about art, and feeling what an Indian feels about land.”
“Until Alvarez Bravo, we had the formal portraits of the 19th Century and the photojournalism of the revolution,” adds Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, editor of a distinguished Mexican series of photography books titled “Coleccion Rio de Luz"--"The River of Light Collection.” “With Don Manuel, Mexican photography as an expressive art became possible.”
Ortiz Monasterio belongs to the latest generation of Mexican fine-arts photographers who acknowledge their debt to Alvarez Bravo. Currently, the most renowned among his colleagues is Graciela Iturbide. In 1972, she was a 30-year-old wife and mother who had resumed her education, taking film classes at the University of Mexico when she realized that Alvarez Bravo was teaching photography across the hall. One day she timidly approached him. To her surprise, he invited her to be his assistant. The principal message of his tutelage was summarized by a sign in his spotless darkroom.
It read: “Hay tiempo” --there is time. “Don’t hurry,” he kept telling her. Instead of discussing chemistry or optics, he made her read poetry, study Picasso, listen to Bach and Verdi, and travel to the countryside and villages. A city dweller all her life, those places became her subjects. Iturbide since has been honored with some of the most prestigious photography awards of Europe, the United States and Latin America; like her mentor’s, Iturbide’s works are exhibited around the world.
Outside Alvarez Bravo’s home, bright magenta bougainvillea cascades over the garden walls; within its carved doors, a brick ceiling supported by vigas arches over a stone floor covered with woven mats. The rooms are lined with paintings and photographs, the shelves filled with books and stone antiquities. In a turbulent place and era, his life has been relatively placid and remains so today. His marriage to Lola, a noted photographer in her own right, gave way to a second, to American anthropologist Doris Heydn, who in turn was followed by his present wife, French photographer Colette Alvarez Urbajtel. But he has been a private man, and his liaisons never became the stuff of legendary gossip. Instead, his emotions have always been best divined through his painstaking selection of the timeless moments that infuse his work. His most unforgettable images illuminate those spaces between dramatic events where life truly occurs: a girl suspended in daydream, or cyclists in perfect cadence with the visual rhythm of mountains rising around them.
He still labors in his darkroom, assisted by Colette, but at 88 he has forsaken traipsing through the landscape for the less taxing, agreeable business of mainly photographing female nudes.
“The nude, like death, is a constant,” he explains. “It represents life. Life and death have intertwined in Mexico’s mind since the pre-Hispanic goddess Coatlicue, whose breasts give sustenance and whose belt of serpents brings doom. She embodies the duality that always accompanies us.”
She is among the ancient deities who haunt his images, their names invading his titles. Sometimes he has photographed their original stone representations, and sometimes he has reincarnated them via his human subjects. In Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Mexico, a tradition of artists who interpret the gods to the public descends through ornate temple carvings and huge murals to the photographic exhibitions so popular in Mexico today.
Few Mexicans can afford to purchase original prints, and making them often requires much sacrifice to acquire precious sheets of imported, silver-emulsion photo paper. Even though an entire room in Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art is dedicated to Alvarez Bravo, the biggest market for his work still exists outside the country. But what he began in this intensely visual land, using a camera not merely to document beauty but to create it, is now being repeated by generations of disciples. No illusions of riches inspire them, only mythic surroundings--surroundings where, as Don Manuel once put it, “I became a photographer in search of my own original image.”
“Revelaciones: The Art of Manuel Alvarez Bravo,” an exhibition of 115 photographs, will be on display from July 12 through Sept. 9 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, 1649 El Prado in Balboa Park. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m. Admission is $2.50, free to museum members and children under 12 accompanied by an adult. For more information, telephone the museum at (619) 239-5262. The exhibition, financed by American Express, with contributions from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, will travel then to San Francisco, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Santa Barbara, Haverford, Pa., Coral Gables, Fla., and Cambridge, Mass.