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Monday, January 30, 2012

Cheers to Bravo!

Study of Tamayo's Hands; 1931; silver gelatin print.

I love black and white photography.  Without the dimension of color I can really see and concentrate on the subject.  I think for some photographers it is harder; you need a unique kind of eye to see something in black and white.  In fact, I see black and white photography as a different genre from color photography.  My favorite black and white photographer is Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Split Nopal; circa 1970; gelatin silver print.

Bravo is recognized today as one of the masters of photography and the main representative of Latino photography in the 20th century.  He was born in Mexico City in 1902, and grew up privy to the avant-garde movements that followed the Mexican Revolution, a cultural renaissance that drew international artists.  His photos captured the disparity between urban and rural life as they confronted modernity.

In a Village; circa 1944; gelatin silver print.  The woman sitting was Bravo's
second wife, Doris Heydn.  Bravo referred to this photo as Sueño de una turista,
or Tourist's Dream.  The women are oblivious to each other, creating tension.

Although he left school at the age of twelve to contribute to his family's income after his father died, he eventually began studying painting and music at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1918.  His father and grandfather had been amateur photographers, and although he received his first camera in 1923 he did not become a professional photographer until two years later.  He met and worked with some of the well-known artists of that time - Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Sisqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, to name but some.

The Good Reputation, Sleeping; from a 1938 negative; gelatin silver print.
The title comes from a proverb - La Buena fama durmiendo; earn a good
reputation, then rest on your laurels.  This photo was the result of a phone
call on behalf of André Breton who wanted an image for the cover of a catalog
for an upcoming surrealist exhibition at the Galería de Arte Mexicano.
This is my personal favorite black and white photo

Although he was never formally a part of the surrealism movement, his work has elements of dreams and fantasties, and his photographs of inanimate objects are generally imbued with human qualities.  His work was often political and he had associations with revolutionary artists and writers.  Despite his openness and exposure to influences outside of his native country, his work displays a distinctively Mexican focus.  This was in tune with national efforts to create a unified Mexican cultural identity, and the emergence of Mexico City as an international center for art and the intellectual climate that accompanied it.

The Crouched Ones; 1934; gelatin silver print.  The anonymous men have
been visually decapitated, their feet bound by the chains linking the chairs.
Such a compelling statement about the constraints and invisibility of laborers!

Tina Modotti was working for the magazine Mexican Folkways, which explored the cultural history of Mexico.  She gave Bravo some freelance assignments, and when she was deported in 1930 for her politics, he took her place.  His work at first consisted mostly of photographs of artifacts, murals, and portraits.  But he also began to photograph landscapes, architecture, nature, and the daily life of everyday people.  He was able to convey a sense of isolation and dissonance in many of his photos; his images tell captivating stories.

Daughter of the Dancers; 1933, gelatin silver print.

For decades he shot his provocative vignettes, but in the 1940s he focused more on landscapes.  Because of his interest and involvement in film his work took on a more cinematic look.  His shots became more complex, blending past and present. Octavio Paz, the Nobel Laureate, was a close friend of Bravo's.  He described Bravo's photographs as instances of revelation, moments of fixation.

Optical Parable; 1931; gelatin silver print.  He flipped
the negative reversing the text.  Parable, parabola in
Spanish, refers to both a shape and a story, thus is wordplay.

Bravo used silver-gelatin, palladium, and platinum printing processes.  He mostly printed 8 x 10 copies, but also did some 11 x 14 prints, and rarely 16 x 20.  He explored all facets of photography, including Polaroids and disposable cameras.  It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with digital photography, but he passed away in 2002, having lived a rich and productive 100 years.

Bravo in London in 1980, age 78.
Image courtesy of Bill Jay.

Bravo was married three times to women who were all professionals of some renown in their own right. He was, and is, a profoundly influential photographer whose work has earned international acclaim.  Born in interesting times, he took full advantage of his situation and involved himself fully in life.  I celebrate his life and work and hope that he will continually inspire those who experience his art.

All images © The J. Paul Getty Trust.  All rights reserved.
The Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo AC is archiving his work.

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