The Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo recorded images of his country from the 1920's through the 1990's. A retrospective of his work is on display in Los Angeles.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo grew up in the tumultuous second decade of the last century, as the Mexican revolution was about to spark a transformation in the Mexican art world. In the 1920s and '30s, the painter Diego Rivera and his colleagues celebrated the life of Mexican peasants in their murals.
The intellectual ferment of Mexico City attracted foreign artists like the American photographers Edward Weston and Paul Strand, and the Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti. The exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was also part of the photopgraher's intellectual circle, as was the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein.
In this creative atmosphere, Manuel Alvarez Bravo began his career with the camera.
Mikka Gee Conway helped organized a retrospective of the photographer's work at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "He started photographing in the 1920's and he is really the last of this generation of artists who have ties to the post-revolutionary period in Mexico, people like Edward Weston and Modotti and Strand and the muralists," Ms. Conway explained. "It was just a tremendously fertile and important period in Mexican art and Mexican history. And he is still with us today, and has been producing photographs up until just a few years ago. The wisdom of the man and the wisdom of his work, I think it can't be overstated."
Manuel Alvarez Bravo is now nearing the age of 100, and he came to Los Angeles to open the exhibition of his work. Called "Optical Parables," the show is named for one of his classic photographs. A reverse image of the front of an optical shop, it features an eye on the shop sign that looks back out at the viewer.
Some works in exhibition come from the collection of Dan Greenberg, who calls himself a compulsive collector of art and photographs. Mr. Greenberg sees an intellectual strain in the work of the Mexican artist, inspired by his colleagues in Mexico City. "He was certainly driven by intellectual ideas, and mostly self-taught," he said. "But in the end, I think the fascination with his own country and its people drove him to try to catch people in their everyday lives, small spaces, compressed images that really reflected what was going on."
The Getty Museum's Mikka Conway says Bravo never restricted himself to a single subject matter, but his work has a unifying theme. "Mexico, the country of Mexico, its people, its places, its vernacular culture. I think at heart, that is what the work is about. Within that, he has taken the theme of the working man, the female body, plants, walls, street scenes, regional customs, memorials, grave markers, everything that speaks about the earth, the culture of Mexico, which comes out of the Mexican soil," she said.
Some of the images are jarring. In 1934, Bravo photographed the body of a worker who had been murdered in a labor dispute. The French surrealist writer Andre Breton found the picture powerful and enigmatic. The artistic school of surrealism celebrates symbolism and the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Andre Breton asked Bravo to compose another picture for a surrealist exhibition in Mexico City. Called "The Good Reputation Sleeping," the 1938 photograph features a nearly naked woman, reclining on a blanket with cactuses around her and bandages wrapped around her midsection and feet.
Mikka Conway says the photographer's fame increased through the interest of foreign artists. "His reputation really grew internationally at first," she exlains. "He had American photographers who were very interested in his work. He had the French surrealists who were very interested in his work in the 1930's. And it took a little while for his work and for photography in general to be appreciated in Mexico. But as of now, he is well known and appreciated around the world."
Today, Ms. Conway says, Manuel Alvarez Bravo is Mexico's most respected photographer.
His works are on display at the Getty Museum through February 17th. Included in the exhibit are works by Mr. Bravo's American colleagues Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Paul Strand.