Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2001/12/13

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Subject: [Leica] Alvarez Bravo's 'Lens of Revelations' at the Getty Museum
From: "Charles C. Stirk Jr." <>
Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2001 06:43:49 -0500

December 13, 2001

Alvarez Bravo's 'Lens of Revelations'


LOS ANGELES, Dec. 12 — Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of the masters of
modern photography and perhaps the most significant artist in Mexico
today, looked around inside the J. Paul Getty Museum, where more than
100 of his photographs, spanning eight decades, are on display through
Feb. 17.

"This is the first time I've left Mexico City without a camera," he said
softly in Spanish, as he sat in a wheelchair.

At 99, Mr. Alvarez Bravo is one of the last of a generation of artists
who directly experienced the creative ferment of post-revolutionary
Mexico that drew artists and intellectuals from all over the world:
Edward Weston, Sergei Eisenstein, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Getty has
mounted this exhibition, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Optical Parables," to
celebrate his 100th birthday on Feb. 4.

"When I was a youth and picked up a camera, I had great admiration for
this amazing invention," Mr. Alvarez Bravo said through a translator.
"There was an incredible means of expression that this incredible
technology provided."

Asked what he sought before taking a photograph, he said simply: "I
don't look for anything. I discover things."

Weston Naef, the Getty's curator of photographs, said Mr. Alvarez
Bravo's work was characterized by contradictions and contrasts. "On the
one hand, he absorbs the influences of high modernism," he said. "On the
other hand, he has an instinctive interest in the commonplace
occurrences unique to Mexico." Mr. Naef also called Mr. Alvarez Bravo
highly unusual "because he stayed in his homeland and became one of the
first photographers to be completely committed to a body of work that
had its grounding in the soil from which he came."
Jill Connelly for The New York Times
Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Find additional information by selecting from the following topics.
Alvarez Bravo, Manuel
J. Paul Getty MuseumJoin a Discussion on Artists and Exhibitions

J. Paul Getty Museum
``The Crouched Ones,'' by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, has been seen as a
commentary on workers or as a form of visual playfulness.
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He added: "Photography is an art that often leads you to travel in order
to take pictures. For Alvarez Bravo, almost all of his greatest pictures
were made within 100 miles of his home."

The works on display range from the mysteriously dreamy to cool
documentaries. They are strikingly different: some capture the
contradictions between urban life and personal solitude; others explore
surrealist themes of death and the erotic; still others explore
perceptions of reality and the blurring of the line between photographer
and subject. Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, once described Mr. Alvarez
Bravo's camera as a "lens of revelations."

One of the most famous works in the show is "Striking Worker Murdered"
(1934). While making a film with Eisenstein in Tihuantepec, Mr. Alvarez
Bravo heard what he thought were fireworks at a nearby train station.
Walking over, he discovered that the noises were gunshots during a
demonstration at the station by striking sugar mill workers. The
workers' leader had just been killed. With two frames left in his
camera, Mr. Alvarez Bravo created a close-up of the dead man — for this
artist, a rare photojournalistic image.

But for art scholars, the photograph resonates with complexity. The
dignified and noble-looking young man lies on the ground, his eyes open
as if he were still alive and thinking. The triangular shape of a flag
in the background is echoed by the triangle formed by the man's bent
arm. And the arm itself reaches toward the viewer as if it were about to
form a plea or perhaps a fist, like those painted by David Alfaro
Siqueiros and other Mexican muralists of the period.

Other well-known works in the show include "Daydreaming" (1931), in
which Mr. Alvarez Bravo, on a visit to the courtyard of the house in
which he grew up in Mexico, chanced upon a beautiful young girl immersed
in a reverie. The dark grays of the photograph, the sunlight lingering
on the girl's shoulder, the serpentine lines of her body, the weathered
state of the building and the listlessness of the scene have been
characterized by art scholars as reflecting everything from the social
conditions of women at the time to the holy images of a church painting
to the contrast between the harshness of the architecture — and the
surrounding life — and the yearning of the girl.

Also on display is "The Crouched Ones" (1834), in which five seated men,
their backs toward the photographer and their heads obliterated in
darkness, are seated in a comedor, a modest storefront cafe. The title
is ambiguous. The men are sitting, not crouching. There are two
shoeshine boxes at their feet. Scholarly interpretations of the
photograph have ranged from a commentary about workers who appear almost
chained to their seats to an exploration of visual playfulness, as the
viewer cannot see the men's faces or what they are eating.

Although there have been previous exhibitions of Mr. Alvarez Bravo's
work, notably one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997, this show is
different. "The theme we wanted to focus on, which has not been
addressed sufficiently in previous exhibitions and publications, was the
way he draws the act of viewing into his photographs," said Mikka Gee
Conway, co-curator of the show with Roberto Tejada, who teaches art
theory at the State University of New York at Buffalo and is a
specialist in the works of Mr. Alvarez Bravo.

"Alvarez Bravo is very canny about the way he looks at the world," Ms.
Conway said. "His pictures are often very much about how photographs,
how the eye works, how you perceive things visually. His subject is
Mexico, but he is also coming out of an international cosmopolitan
tradition of modernist photography and modernism in general."

"Although the pictures are beautiful," she added, "he's not setting out
to make things that look good."

At the Getty, Mr. Alvarez Bravo said he was deeply influenced by Eugène
Atget, the idiosyncratic French photographer whose work reflected the
changing architectural, social and political mood of Paris in the early

As a result, Mr. Alvarez Bravo became fascinated, especially in the
1930's and 40's, by street scenes, storefronts, signs and vendors. He
photographed those subjects against a backdrop of a rapidly changing
Mexico City, caught between modernity and the reminders of indigenous
civilizations. A striking example is "Kiln Number Three," made from a
1957 negative. In this photograph, Mr. Tejada said, the kilns used for
the production of bricks in the Mexican countryside suggest the same
violent destruction that took place in the New World encounter between
Spanish colonizers and the native civilizations of Mexico.

Mr. Alvarez Bravo's work, Mr. Tejada said, cannot be isolated from that
of others who helped stir Mexico City's creative ferment in the 1920's
and 30's: Weston and his lover and protégé, Tina Modotti, as well as the
photographers Paul Strand and Cartier-Bresson and filmmakers like
Eisenstein and artists like Diego Rivera.

But unlike Rivera or Modotti, Mr. Alvarez Bravo was never a Marxist or
overtly political. Instead, he took to the streets to photograph
everyday objects and ordinary situations in a way that allowed
unexpected moods and stories to unfold. Mr. Tejada said the Alvarez
Bravo photographs represented a concise vision of Mexico as an actual
and symbolic landscape. He added that the photographer's subjects —
mostly working- class and middle-class Mexicans — were locked in a dream
world of "longing, solitude, candor and foreboding."

The Getty show comprises photographs from the museum's holdings, as well
as from the collection of Daniel Greenberg, a Los Angeles businessman,
and his wife, Susan Steinhauser, a lawyer.

Mr. Alvarez Bravo himself has never offered interpretations of his work.
He has suggested that viewers ask his photographs, not him, what they
mean. Over the years, he has told students: "Shoot what you see, not
what you think. A photographer's philosophy should be not to have one."

One of his most puzzling and most analyzed photographs was created in
1939 when the writer André Breton asked Mr. Alvarez Bravo to take part
in a surrealist exhibition at a Mexico City gallery. The photographer
obliged him with "The Good Reputation Sleeping," a portrait of a nude
woman partially wrapped in bandages and lying on a blanket surrounded by
cactus buds. The triptych print, which is in the Getty show, has been
called confounding and mysterious by curators and art historians.

Mr. Alvarez Bravo has said that he is not sure what inspired the
photograph. "You bring your accumulated life to the moment that
something sparks you to make an image," he said in an interview years
ago. "Everything influences you. And it's all good."

Now he barely lifts a camera anymore. When asked at the Getty if he
still took photographs, he replied, "Very little, very little." Mr.
Alvarez Bravo was asked his opinion of digital photographs. "It's not a
bad thing," he said, "as long as it's a means to an end."

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