Manuel Alvarez Bravo, February 4, 1902 – October 19, 2003 was an influential Mexican artist photographer. He was raised in Mexico City. He took art classes at Academy of San Carlos but his photography skills are self-taught. His career spans from the late 1920s through the 1990s, with his artistic peak in the 1920s and 1950s. He was known for his ability to capture the everyday in surrealistic or ironic ways. Although his early work was heavily influenced by European influences, he soon became influenced by Mexican muralism and the cultural and political push to redefine Mexican identity. He was against the idyllic and used elements to avoid stereotyping. His work was displayed in numerous exhibitions. He also worked in Mexican cinema and founded Fondo Editorial de la Plastica Mexicana, a publishing house. His work was mostly recognized after 1970. He received numerous awards. In 2017, the UNESCO Memory of the World registry recognized his work.
Alvarez Bravo was a Mexican citizen who was born in Mexico City, February 4, 1902. His father was a teacher but he pursued painting, photography, and writing. He also produced several plays, and his grandfather was an artist and portrait maker. Alvarez Bravo was exposed to photography early on. He was raised in Mexico City’s historic center, right behind the Cathedral. His home was one of many colonial buildings that were converted into apartments for the city’s lower and middle classes. When the Mexican Revolution started, he was eight years old. As a child, he could hear gunfire and saw dead bodies. Later, this would impact his photography.
Alvarez Bravo was an elementary student at the Patricio Sánz boarding school in Tlalpan from 1908 to 1914. However, he had to drop out at twelve because his father died. For a time, he worked as a clerk in a French textile factory and then at the Mexican Treasury Department. After studying accounting at night, he switched to art classes at Academy of San Carlos. Alvarez Bravo met Hugo Brehme and purchased his first camera in 1924. With some help from Brehme, he began to experiment with the camera. He also subscribed to magazines about photography. Tina Modotti, a photographer, was his first encounter. Alvarez Bravo had already admired Modotti’s work in Mexican Folkways magazines like Forma before they met. He was introduced to Edward Weston, a photographer and intellectual in Mexico City who encouraged him to keep at the craft.
Alvarez Bravo was married 3 times throughout his life. All of them were photographers. Lola Alvarez Bravo Bravo, his first wife, was his. As a freelance photographer, he got married to her in 1925. He taught her how to do the art, but she didn’t have the same fame. Manuel was their sole child. They split in 1934. His second wife, Doris Heyden was their only child. Colette Alvarez Urbajtel (a French photographer) was his third.
In 1973, he gave his personal collection which included photos and cameras to the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. 400 additional photos were purchased by Mexico’s Museo de Arte Moderno.
He died on October 19, 2002.
Alvarez Bravo was a photographer from the 1920s until the 1990s. It was founded in the decade that followed the Mexican Revolution (1920s-1950s), a time when there was significant artistic output. The government sponsored a lot of it to promote a new Mexican identity, which is based both on modernity and Mexico’s indigenous past.
He began photography in the 1920s. In 1930, Modotti quit his government job to become an independent photographer. Tina Modotti, a Mexican politician was also deported that same year. Alvarez Bravo gave her her camera, and Mexican Folkways magazine job. Alvarez Bravo began to photograph muralists in Mexico for this publication. He made his professional debut in the remaining 1930s. Paul Strand, a professional photographer, was his friend on the 1933 set of “Redes”. He briefly collaborated with him. Andre Breton, a French Surrealist artist, was the first person he met. Breton promoted Alvarez Bravo’s French work and had it displayed there. Breton requested a photograph be used as the cover to a catalog about an exhibit in Mexico. Alvarez Bravo’s photo “La buena Fiama durmiendo” was created by Alvarez Bravo. The Mexican censors withheld it from publication due to nudity. But, the photo would be published again.
Alvarez Bravo taught most of the next generation, including Nacho López, Hector Garcia, and Graciela Iurbide. He was a teacher of photography at the Escuela central de artes plasticas (now the National School of Arts) from 1938-1939. He was a professor at Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos during the latter half 1960s.
He worked as a still photographer in Mexico from 1943 to 1959. This led him to try out cinematography. He collaborated with Jose Revueltas on an experimental film called Coatlicue in 1949. He worked as a still photographer for Luis Bunuel’s 1957 film Nazarin.
He participated in more than 200 collective exhibitions and had over 150 solo exhibitions. A 1928 photograph of his was selected to be displayed in the First Salon Mexciano de la Fotografia. In 1932, he had his first solo exhibition at Galeria Posada in Mexico City. He exhibited at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1935 with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and had catalogue texts by Langston Hughes, Luis Cardoza y Aragon, and Langston Hughes. His work was included in a surrealist exhibit by Andre Breton, which took place at the gallery of Ines Amor in 1940. Edward Steichen selected three Bravo pictures for MoMA’s 1955 The Family of Man exhibit. This exhibition was viewed by more people than any other. The Palacio De Bellas Artses hosted a retrospective in 1968 of the work of Alvarez Bravo. In 1971, he exhibited at Pasadena Art Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1978. He also exhibited at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, 1983, and the National Library of Madrid in 1985. Evidencias de lo invisible cien fotografias (Evidence of the Invisible – One Hundred Photographs) was shown at the Fine Arts Museum, New Delhi, the Imperial Palace, Beijing, and the Belem Cultural Center, Lisbon, from 1994 to 1995. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles hosted a retrospective on his work in 2001.
In 1945, he published his first book “El arte negro”. His photographs also appeared in many publications throughout his career, including the 1964 book Mexico: pintura y hoy by Luis Cardoza y Aragon. Along with Octavio Pasz, he co-authored and provided photographs for the 1982 book Instante y revelacion. He founded the Fondo Editorial Mexicana de la Plastica Mexicana in 1959 with Gabriel Figueroa and Rafael Carrillo. This publisher produces books about Mexican art. This project took him through the 1960s, which put him in relative anonymity until 1970s when his work was again widely displayed.
Alvarez Bravo won his first major award for photography, first prize for an image featuring two lovers on a boat at Feria Regional Ganadera Oaxaca. He won the first prize in a competition sponsored and organized by La Tolteca with the image La Tolteca. Diego Rivera was among the judges. His awards were not awarded until the 1970s. These awards include the Elias Sourasky Arts Prize, Premio National de Arte, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Alvarez Bravo continued photographing until his passing. He began photographing nudes one year before his death. He said that it wasn’t work you can complain about.
His work is represented in significant collections in Mexico and the United States. Francisco Toledo, a Mexican photographer, founded the Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo in 1996. Six halls are available for temporary exhibitions of Toledo’s photographs and works by other photographers. It also houses a library that specializes in photography, as well as a permanent collection with 4,000 photographs taken by Alvarez Bravo and other prominent photographers. Alvarez Bravo started assembling the collection in 1980 for Fundacion Cultural Televisa. It consists of 2,294 photos. The Casa Lamm Cultural Center Mexico City has a vault to store them. Casa Lamm’s photo archive continues to be open to requests for reproductions from Mexico and other countries. It also provides assistance to researchers looking into the life and times of the photographer. Two important collections outside of Mexico are located at the J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles and Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum.
ArtistryHe was the pioneer in Mexican artistic photography and the most prominent figure in Latin American photography during the 20th century. His creative work reached new heights between the 1920s and the 1940s. He recognized the limitations of photography and was able to avoid stereotyping.
His main subjects were nudes and folk art, rituals and burials, as well as shop windows, urban streets, and everyday interactions. Diego Rivera encouraged Alvarez Bravo to travel to rural and small towns, even though he spent most of his time in Mexico City. Alvarez Bravo photographs rarely depict the trappings and power of politics, preferring to photograph everyday life. His subjects are almost all anonymous. He also wanted to capture textures, particularly those on floors and walls. One example is “Hair on Tile”, which features a long, wavy hairstyle on a tile floor with cross and star designs.
Large cameras produced greater detail in his finished prints, so he used them. He was more concerned about the quality of the prints than with the images that he took. The images were poetic and the compositions were excellent. To distinguish his photographs, he gave them titles. His photographs’ titles often draw inspiration from Mexican mythology and culture.
Alvarez Bravo’s early work was heavily influenced by European Cubism and French Surrealism. This was largely due to two books: one on Picasso and one on Japanese prints with Hokusai work. His career was established in the post-Mexican Revolution era when there was a cultural as well as political push to redefine Mexican identity. He embraced Mexican influences in the 1930s and switched to themes and styles that were more reminiscent of European art, as well as the Mexican muralism movement. His photographs were more complex, with symbols of blood and death, religion and the paradoxes of Mexican culture. His childhood experience with death during the Mexican Revolution played a part in the photographs, from the explicit “Striking Worker assassinated” to the subtler “Portrait of the Eternal.” Alvarez Bravo was not interested in politics, but he was very interested in Mexico’s cultural identity.
Alvarez Bravo’s trademark was the ability to capture hidden and surreal essences beneath the apparently ordinary images he was photographing. Alvarez Bravo was the first Mexican photographer to take a militantly anti-picturesque stand, to avoid stereotyping Mexico’s variety of cultures. To avoid the picturesque, he had to present images that went against what was expected from photographs about Mexico even if photographing something classically Mexican. One way Alvarez Bravo did this was to employ a sense of irony, to the addition of an element contrary to expectations and the main focus of the photograph. For example, while photographing an indigenous man in typical clothing (Señor de Papantla 1934), the man stares defiantly back into the camera. Another was to capture people doing ordinary activities avoiding romanticism and sentimentality. One example is a photo of a mother and a shoeshine boy (La mama del bolero y el bolero 1950s) eating lunch together. Another is a group of men eating at a lunch counter (Los agachadfos 1934).
Alvarez Bravo used Mexico City’s streets and squares as a platform to present the social and cultural realities in the city. To present Mexico City, he used his lens not to portray it as heroic or moral but instead to focus on social relationships and material conflicts. These include gender and class roles. In the 1930s and 1940s, he found more complex ways of framing the contradictions of Mexico’s urban lifestyle into social statements. In his photographs, the feminine identity shows a complex symbolic range in which sex overlaps with other social identities.
This article was written by © Christopher G – Narrating Images