Alvarez Bravo, Manuel
Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Born February 4, 1902, in, Mexico City, Mexico; died, October 19, 2002, in Mexico City, Mexico; married Dolores (Lola) Martínez de Anda, 1925 (divorced, 1934); married Doris Heyden (divorced); married Colette Urbajtel, 1962; children: Manuel, Laurencia, Miguel, Aurelia, and Genoveva. Education: Attended the Catholic Brothers School, Mexico City, Mexico, 1908-14; studied painting and music at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1918; self-taught in photography.
Photographer. Worked as a copy clerk, Mexico City, 1915-16, and for the Mexican Treasury Department, Mexico City, 1916-31. Freelance photographer, Mexico City, 1931-2002. Instructor in photography, Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Carlos, Mexico City, 1928-29, 1938-40; proprietor of a commercial photography shop, Mexico City, 1939-42; photographer/cameraman and instructor in photography, Sindicato de Tecnicos y Manuales de la Industria Cinematografica, Mexico City, 1945-58; instructor in Photography, Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos, Mexico City, 1966-68. El Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, Mexico City, founder/director and chief photographer, beginning 1959. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions: Galeria Posada, Mexico City, 1932; Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, (with Henri Cartier-Bresson), 1934; Documentary and Anti-Graphic, Julien Levy Gallery, New York, NY (with Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson), 1935; Hull House, Chicago, IL, 1936; Almer Coe Optical Company, Chicago, IL, 1936; Universidad Nacional de Mexico, Mexico City, 1939; Photo League, New York, NY, 1942; Art Institute of Chicago, IL, 1943; Sociedad de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 1945; Centro de Relaciones Culturales Anglo-Mexicano, Mexico City, 1954; Salon de la Plástica Mexicana, Mexico City; Galeria de Arte Mexicano (Galeria Ines Amor), Mexico City, 1966; Manuel Alvarez Bravo; Fotografias 1928-1968, Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1968; Pasadena Art Museum, CA, 1971; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1971; International Museum of Photography, Rochester, NY, 1971; Manuel Alvarez Bravo; 400 Photographs, Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1972; Casa de la Cultura, Hucjitan, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1973; Art Institute of Chicago, IL, 1974; Galeria Arvil, Mexico City, 1974; Casa del Lago Universidad, Mexico City, 1974; University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, 1974; Alhondiga de Grananitas, Guanajuato, Mexico, 1975; Witkin Gallery, New York, NY, 1975; Museo de Arte Moderno, Caracas, Venezuela, 1975; Galeria Juan Martìn, Mexico City, 1975; Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City (opening of permanent exhibit), 1976; Photogalerie, Paris, France, 1976; Musée Nicéphore Niepce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France, 1976; Galerie Municipale du Chateau d'Eau, Toulouse, 1976; Alvarez Bravo/Pedro Meyer/Lázaro Blanco, Galleria Il Diaframma, Milan, Italy, 1976; Photographers Gallery, London, England, 1978; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, 1978; Rencontres Internationale de la Photographie, Arles, France, 1979; Museo de San Carlos, Mexico City, 1980; Witkin Gallery, New York, NY, 1981; Photo Art, Basle, Switzerland, 1981; Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel, 1983; Quito, Ecuador, 1984; La Habana, Cuba, 1984; Madrid Biblioteca Nacional, 1985; Comemora los 50 años de la exhibicion con Henri Cartier-Bresson, el INBA, 1986; Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, 1986; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France, 1986; International Center of Photography, New York, NY, 1987; Coimbra and Palace of Cascais, Portugal, 1987; Alla and Sheinbaum and Russek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, 1988; The Witkin Gallery, New York, NY, 1989; Centro Cultural Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico, 1989; Mucho Sol, Bellas Artes, Mexico, 1989; Museo de Arte Moderno, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1989; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, CA, 1990; 90th Birthday Exhibition, Galería Juan Martin, Mexico; The Witkin Gallery, New York, NY; Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1992; Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, 1992; Variaciones 1995-1997, Mexico City, 1997; Manuel Alvarez Bravo: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1997; Cien años, cien dias, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 2001; Parabolas opticas, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, 2002; Manuel Alvarez Bravo, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 2002. Selected group exhibitions: Souvenir du Mexique, Galerie Renou et Colle, Paris, France, 1939; Mexican Art Today, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, 1943; The Family of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (and world tour), 1955; Alvarez Bravo/Walker Evans/August Sander/Paul Strand, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1956; Coloquio Latinoamericano de Fotografía, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 1961; Concerning Photography, The Photographers' Gallery, London, England (traveled to the Spectro Workshop, Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1977; Contemporary Photography in Mexico, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 1978; The Imaginary Photo Museum, Kunsthalle, Cologne, West Germany, 1980; Photographer as Printmaker, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, Yorkshire, England (traveled to the Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, England; Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, England; Castle Museum, Nottingham, England; Photographers Gallery, London), 1981; Primavera Fotografica a Barcelona, Fundacion Miró, Barcelona, Spain, 1982. Permanent collections: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY; International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Pasadena Art Museum, CA; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France; Musée Nicéphore Niepce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France; Museum of Modern Art, Moscow, Russia; and Centro Fotografía Alvarez Bravo, Oaxaca City, Mexico.
Sourasky Art Prize, 1974; National Art Prize, Mexico, 1975; honorary member, Academia de Artes, Mexico; Tlacuxlo de Plata awarded by El Salon de la Plástica Mexicana, 1992; Crêdor Emérito, Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1993; Peer Award for Distinguished Career in Photography, Friends of Photography, San Francisco, CA, 1994; a museum, Centro Fotografia Alvarez Bravo, was named in his honor in 1996, in Oaxaca City, Mexico.
Jose Luis Melgarejo Vivanco, Los lienzos de Tuxpan, Editorial La Estampa Mexicana (Mexico), 1970.
Dreams—Visions—Metaphors: The Photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, text by Nissan N. Perez, Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel), 1983.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: 303 photographies, 1920-1986 (exhibition catalog), Musee d'art moderne de la ville de Paris (Paris, France), 1986.
Teresa del Conde, Mucho sol, Fondo de Cultura Economica (Mexico), 1989.
Cofradio de luz (exhibition catalogue), Centro de la Imagen (Mexico City, Mexico), 1995.
Variaciones, 1995-1997 (exhibition catalog), Centro de la Imagen (Mexico City, Mexico), 1997.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo (exhibition catalog), text by Susan Mismaric, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 1997.
Estampa europea de los siglos XV y XVI: coleccion Manuel Alvarez Bravo (exhibition catalog), Museo Soumaya (Mexico), 1998.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 2001.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: cien años, cien dias, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (Mexico City, Mexico), 2001.
Parabolas opticas (exhibition catalog), Museo Nacionale de Arte (Mexico City, Mexico), 2002.
In the one hundred years of his life, Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo created images of his native country in black-and-white that are "understated nearly to the point of silence," as Arthur Ollman observed in the Los Angeles Times. Such "quotidian events," as Ollman called them, include "a dog asleep at a gate, a ladder against a wall, fresh sheets hanging on a line, a woman brushing her long hair." For Ollman, "It is amazing that [Alvarez Bravo] was even noticed at all. Yet his work has endured. Through revelations of timeless yet unremarkable moments, he identified the doors to the absolute."
As David Lyon noted in Americas, "Almost everyone knows at least one Manuel Alvarez Bravo photograph, though not necessarily as the artist's work." Lyon pointed to the oft-reproduced, somewhat surreal image of a beautiful young woman reclining nude on a sidewalk with bits of cactus around her, and her feet and upper thighs wrapped in gauze. Good Reputation Sleeping, as this image is titled, graces the pages of numerous photo collections and calendars. Or there is the more formal portrait of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, "perhaps the best-known photograph of her," according to Lyon, for whom Alvarez Bravo was "Mexico's greatest photographer." There are sheets flapping in the wind on a quiet urban street with two pedestrians crossing paths in How Small the World Is, or the poignant rear view of a girl peering through a window in The Daughter of the Dancers. Alvarez Bravo's oeuvre is filled with such quiet yet meaningful moments.
New York Times contributor Jonathan Kandell called Alvarez Bravo "Mexico's greatest photographer and a world master of his art" in a 2002 obituary notice of the artist. And for Lorenza Munoz, writing in the Los Angeles Times, this "'maestro' of Mexican photography" created images that "captured the complexity and beauty of the country's indigenous roots and its Spanish heritage, its harsh natural beauty and its delicacy." Largely self-trained in photography, Alvarez Bravo was influenced by international photographers such as Tina Modotti, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Andre Breton, but the result was all Alvarez Bravo, photographs in which he "depicted human beings reduced to their existential presence," according to Erika Billeter in Grove Art Online. Alvarez Bravo's was an intensely personal and subtly emotional art. As Lyon quoted the photographer in Americas: "'I don't go out to take photographs with a plan. 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. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn't.'" And Munoz also quoted the master Latin American photographer on the importance of milieu; in his case, the working class streets of Mexico City: "I am happy to have lived those streets. There everything was food for my camera, everything had an inherent social content; in life everything has a social content."
A Child of the Twentieth Century
Born on February 4, 1902, just behind the main cathedral in Mexico City, Alvarez Bravo was of an artistic family; his grandfather was a portrait painter and his father an amateur painter, photographer and writer who taught high school for a living. The fifth of eight children, Alvarez Bravo attended a Catholic school in a suburb of Mexico City until he was twelve years old, and lessons were often interrupted by the sound of gunfire. A profound influence on the young boy was the 1910 Revolution in which the dictator Diaz was overthrown. But the following years were ones of near anarchy in the country as one rebel leader deposed another, until the election of Ernesto Obregon as president in 1920. The sight of dead bodies in the street was not uncommon for the young boy as he made his way to and from school or played with his childhood friends. Alvarez Bravo would later say, "The concept of death is explicit or implicit in my photographs."
At the age of twelve, Alvarez Bravo took work as a copy clerk and continued studying accountancy at night, for arithmetic had been his only strong subject in school. By the age of fourteen he had taken a job as copy clerk at the Mexican Treasury Department, continuing his night school classes, but substituting a study of literature for accountancy. His interest in art continued to grow, and in 1918 the youth studied painting and music for a year at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes. An interest in photography was spurred by a chance visit to an exhibition, and when a family friend loaned him a camera, Alvarez Bravo became addicted to the art form. Still working as a clerk, now for the Department of Power and Transportation, he had a boss who encouraged him in his photographic pursuits, lending him photo magazines and stimulating him to read more at the library about photography.
Mentors and Early Work
When he was twenty-one, Alvarez Bravo met the German-born photographer Hugo Brehme, who had come to Mexico on assignment in 1907 and had never left. Brehme, noted for his scenes of the Mexican Revolution, took the young man under his wing, teaching him European photographic techniques. A year later, Alvarez Bravo bought, in installments, his first camera, a Century Master 25, built by a company later swallowed up by Eastman Kodak. Through Brehme, he also met Wilhelm Kahlo, another German-born photographer, and father of the painter Frida Kahlo. Married in 1925 to a childhood sweetheart, Alvarez Bravo moved to Oaxaca where he had a new post in the Treasury Department. There both he and his wife, Lola, experimented with photography and darkroom techniques. During his stay in Oaxaca, he won a prize in a regional photography contest. Though his early work was influenced by Cubism and abstraction, he was soon taking photographs in a more pictorial vein, influenced by the published work of artists such as Albert Renger-Patzch, Edward Weston, and the Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, with whom Weston had once lived while in Mexico. As Genevieve Waller noted in Afterimage, Alvarez Bravo was particularly influenced by "Weston's method of isolating and abstracting details from an environment." As Waller further commented, the Mexican photographer "went on to create images of urban landscapes and Mexican life informed by this aesthetic."
Returning to Mexico City in 1927, Alvarez Bravo got in touch with Modotti and through her came into contact with many of the artistic luminaries of the time, including the muralist Diego Rivera, and Kahlo, as well as Juan Rulfo, Rufino Tamayo, and visiting artists such as D. H. Lawrence, Paul Strand, and Sergei Eisenstein. Thus, he came under the influence of major modernist artists in literature and visual arts. Through Modotti, he also met the editor of Mexican Folkways magazine, Francis Toor, for whom Modotti was at the time working. Alvarez Bravo's first show outside of Mexico took place in 1929, in Berkeley, California, in a group showing with Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange, but until 1931 he earned his living as a clerk. When Modotti, a communist, was deported from Mexico, she turned over her job at Mexican Folkways to Alvarez Bravo. He shot pictures of mural art and everyday life in Mexico for this publication. Slowly, he began to make a living as a professional photographer, and individual images, such as Two Pairs of Legs, Boy Urinating, and Libros were making his name known not only in Mexico, but also internationally. His 1934 photo of a striker slain at a demonstration, Striking Worker, Assassinated, blends realism and symbolism, with the dead young man appearing to be a sacrifice and as such, part of a more ancient pre-Columbian Mexican culture. When, in 1931, he won first prize in a contest sponsored by a cement manufacturer with the photo La Tolteca, he left clerking behind and became a full-time photographer.
Shuns the Picturesque
Though Alvarez Bravo's art is easily appreciated, it is never solely picturesque. As John Mraz observed in Zone Zero Magazine Online, Alvarez Bravo always swam "counter to the stream of established cliches, using visual irony to contradict what he initially appears to [be] saying, hence inviting the viewer to engage in the task of interpretation." Mraz provided as examples two photographs from 1934, Public Thirst and Man from Papantla. Each appears, at first glance, to be merely picturesque images of peasant life, yet both introduce elements that go "against the expectations of picturesqueness," whether it be a very untypical pair of Mexican feet or a defiant glance from the subject of the photograph. According to Mraz, "Alvarez Bravo's search for mexicanidad (Mexicanness) led him to reconfigure national symbols." A rolled up mattress in Mattress, resembles serapes, for instance, or the murdered striker recalls Toltec sacrifices. Alvarez Bravo's "rejection of facile picturesqueness, his insistently ambiguous irony, and his redemption of common folk and their daily subsistence," according to Mraz, "have marked out a path of high standards for photographers from his area."
Alvarez Bravo and his first wife divorced in 1934; he subsequently married the American journalist, archaeologist, and writer Doris Heyden. During the 1930s he met and worked with the French photographer Cartier-Bresson as well as the American Strand. He and Cartier-Bresson exhibited together in Mexico City and in New York. During this time he also began a long teaching career at schools including the San Carlos Academy, the Center of Cinematographic Studies, and the Central School of Art. His body of work continued to grow, also, with images such as The Crouched Ones, The Good Reputation Sleeping, Barber, Ladder of Ladders, Optical Parable, Burial at Metepec, The Daughter of the Dancers, Portrait of the Eternal, The Evangelist, and How Small the World Is. His work involves an interplay of light and shadow as well as a revelation, almost a gestalt, of depth in the quotidian. Death also was a constant minor theme in his work, a result both of his own exposure to death on the streets as a child growing up in the revolution, and also because of a cultural reverence for the dead as manifested in Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.
As Alvarez Bravo's fame spread internationally in the 1940s, he also branched out from the narrow streets of Mexico City to the more expansive rural landscapes of Mexico, employing wide angle cameras and creating telling images of fields of corn, cactus-strewn deserts, crumbling churches, and portraits of men and women set in harsh environs. As M. Darsie Alexander commented in an exhibition brochure for the 1997 Museum of Modern Art exhibition on Alvarez Bravo, and reproduced on the Museum of Modern Art Web site, "This cinematic approach to photography differed considerably from the intentionally ambiguous and intellectually driven work done in Mexico City during the previous decade." In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired its first works by Alvarez Bravo, and in 1955, his prints were also included in Edward Steichen's Family of Man. His 1957 photograph Kiln Two harkens back to Mayan themes with an image of a smoking ceramic oven that resembles an ancient temple.
Works to the End
Though the 1930s and 1940s were considered to be the high point of Alvarez Bravo's art, he continued taking and printing photographs until the day he died, at over one hundred years of age. His third wife, Colette Urbajtel, whom he married in 1962, worked along with him in the dark room. He also was in the film industry for a time and became the chief photographer for art books for Fondo Editorial de la Plastica Mexicana, which he founded. He continued teaching into the 1970s, and in the 1980s went to work for Televisa, a Mexican-based media empire.
If you enjoy the works of Manuel Alvarez Bravo
If you enjoy the works of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, you might want to check out the following:
The photography of Tina Modotti, who lived and worked in Mexico in the early 20th century, capturing the country's rural life.
The photography of Edward Weston, who was an early influence on Alvarez Bravo and worked in Mexico for part of his career.
The photojournalism of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose search for the "telling moment" proved inspiring to a generation of art photographers.
In his later years, Alvarez Bravo's eyesight weakened and he traveled little. Indeed, throughout his life he continued to live in and around Mexico City; all his major photographs were from this region. During the 1960s and 1970s, he experimented with color photography, but it is for his black-and-white images that he is best known. Even with diminished eyesight, he still took photos that worked with the play of light, such as those examining the shadows cast by the trees in the courtyard of his home in Coyoacan near Mexico City. "He could see those grand shapes and elegantly composed them in a sort of balletic combat between the forces of light and darkness," wrote Ollman. Turning 100, his life and works were celebrated in Mexico and the United States; retrospectives were mounted, and he was able to enjoy them. He died of natural causes on October 19, 2002, and left a body of work that produces "instants of revelation, not stories," wrote Octavio Paz, as quoted by Alexander. Lyon similarly observed that "with Alvarez Bravo, moments of grace are everywhere for those who are prepared to perceive them." And speaking with Mark Edward Harris and Marina de Santiago Haas in the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of his hundredth birthday, Alvarez Bravo commented, "Throughout my life I've never pursued anything. I just let things pursue me . . . they just show up. I'm never after things. Whatever shows up, I take. This is the way I've led my life, not just in photography."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Coleman, A. D., Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Aperture (New York, NY), 1987.
Contemporary Photographers, 3rd edition, edited by Martin Marix Evans, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Hopkinson, Amanda, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Phaidon (New York, NY), 2002.
Huque, Ariadne Kimberly, editor, Nudes/Desnudos: The Photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Art Publishers (New York, NY), 2002.
St. James Guide to Hispanic Artists, edited by Thomas Riggs, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Afterimage, winter, 2002, Genevieve Waller, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 1902-2002," p. 2.
Americas, January-February, 1991, David Lyon, "Frames from the Streets of Grace," pp. 28-35.
Art in America, December, 1994, Sarah S. King, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo at El Museo del Barrio," pp. 100-101.
Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1992, Suzanne Muchnic, "Getty Purchases 53 Works by Bravo," p. 6; November 4, 2001, Mark Edward Harris and Marina de Santiago Haas, "An Impulse for Genius; Reflections on a Life Behind the Lens: Manuel Alvarez Bravo's First 100 Years," p. 1; December 18, 2001, David Pagel, "Life's Everyday Mysteries,"p. F2; October 22, 2002, Arthur Ollman, "An Appreciation; Alvarez Bravo's Camera Made Time Stand Still," p. E3.
New York Times, December 13, 2001, Bernard Weinraub, "Alvarez Bravo's 'Lens of Revelations,'" p. E1.
Texas Monthly, October, 1996, Anne Dingus, "Bravo!,"pp. 120-125.
About,http://photography.about.com/library/weekly/aa110402a.htm/ (February 22, 2004), Peter Marshall, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo."
Art Scene Online,http://artscenecal.com/ (February, 2002), Marlena Donohue, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo."
Grove Art Online,http://www.groveart.com/ (September 27, 1999), Erika Billeter, "Alvarez Bravo, Manuel."
Museum of Modern Art Web site,http://www.moma.org/ (1997), M. Darsie Alexander, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo."
Zone Zero Magazine Online,http://www.zonezero.com/magazine/articles/mraz/alvarezb.html/ (February 22, 2004), John Mraz, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Ironizing Mexico."
Afterimage, winter, 2002, Genevieve Waller, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 1902-2002," p. 2.
Art in America, December, 2002, Stephanie Cash and David Ebony, "Obituaries," p. 126.
Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2002, Lorenza Munoz, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 100, Mexican Photographer," p. B9.
New York Times, October 21, 2002, Jonathan Kandell, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Photographer, Dies at 100," p. A16.*