Thursday, September 06, 2007

Manuel Alvarez Bravo

I mentioned Bravo the other day when I came across the book of his Polaroids (which I'm still eagerly waiting to see).

It's pretty much impossible to do justice to the work of Manuel Alvarez Bravo in a blog post, but here's to making at least a start on it.

I first became aware of Bravo's work close to 30 years ago when I picked up a monograph about him at a Library sale. It seemed like a good deal for a couple of Pounds and I had never heard of this Mexican photographer before.

Well, the book wasn't quite the deal I thought it was and it became apparent why the library had it in the sale... Bravo took some interesting nudes and some enterprising teenager (at least I hope it was a teenager) had drawn little penises on some of those with biro! But at least the majority of the images were unsullied (though I still can't see La buena fama durmiendo (The Good Reputation Sleeping) here without the image of a little blue penis hovering over her...).

That aside, it still suprises me that only Bravo died 2002, with over 80 years as a photographer. He is often placed alongside Cartier Bresson in the photographic pantheon - though usually on a slightly lower pedestal. Yet to my mind, Bravo's work is much more significant. He just happened to live in Mexico City, not Paris.
From John Mraz at Zone Zero:

"When Alvarez Bravo began photographing in the 1920s, the cultural effervescence that followed the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) had unleashed a national search for identity, and the question of what to do with Mexico’s inherent exoticism was the burning issue for photographers. Perhaps influenced by his relationship with Weston and Modotti, Alvarez Bravo was the first Mexican photographer to take a militantly anti-picturesque stance, and he achieved international recognition for work which reached creative heights from the late 1920s through the mid-1950s, a period during which he perfected a sophisticated approach to representing his culture. Conscious both of Mexico’s otherness and the way in which that has led almost naturally to stereotypical imagery, Alvarez Bravo has always swum counter to the stream of established clichés, using visual irony to contradict what he initially appears to saying, hence inviting the viewer to engage in the task of interpretation.

Consider Sed pública (Public Thirst), the 1934 photo of a boy drinking water from a village well. This image contains all the elements necessary to make it picturesque: a young peasant, dressed in the white clothing

typical of his culture, perches on a battered village well to drink the water which flows from it; an adobe wall behind provides texture. But, the light in the image seems to concentrate itself on the foot that juts forward into the frame, a foot that is too particular, too individual to be able to “stand for” the Mexican peasantry, and thus represent their other-worldliness. It is this boy’s foot, not a typical peasant’s foot, and it goes against the expectations of picturesqueness raised by the other elements, “saving” the image through its very particularity...

Manuel Alvarez Bravo has been a definitive influence on Mexican and Latin American photography. His rejection of facile picturesqueness, his insistently ambiguous irony, and his redemption of common folk and their daily subsistence have marked out a path of high standards for photographers from his area."

There are numerous books available about him (including the Polaroids) such as here and here along with an interesting comparison:Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson And Walker Evans: Documentary And Anti-Graphic Photographs, and also some good info at the Getty and at MoMA with a good essay on his work as well as images.

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