“A photographer’s main instrument is his eyes. Strange as it may seem, many photographers choose to use the eyes of another photographer, past or present, instead of their own. Those photographers are blind.” – Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902 – 2002) was Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and is the most important figure in 20th century Latin American photography.
From 1929 through the mid-1930s Alvarez Bravo’s photographs are indeed dominated by pictures he made in the urban streets – shop windows jammed with goods, advertising billboards slipped into the architecture, and vignettes from life’s ongoing mini-dramas as they played themselves out. While Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other French photographers of the “social fantastic” used the Leica 35mm camera, Alvarez Bravo used a Graflex camera, which has a larger negative and requires more time between exposures. Asked if he had used a Leica soon after its invention, Alvarez Bravo reported that Rodolfo Mantel, the photographic supply salesman who suggested him for Primer salon Mexicano de fótografia in 1928, received the first Leica in Mexico: “One day, while he was trying it out, he took a photo of me and I took one of him. He developed the negative, and it was very grainy…. I didn’t buy this Leica …. Photographers thought that Leicas were toy cameras.”
The photographs Alvarez Bravo made on the streets of Mexico City in this period were made with the hand-held Graflex camera, which gave him two very desirable qualities in his pictures. The Graflex is a large-format, single-lens reflex camera, meaning that the photographer can see the picture on the ground glass right up to the moment of exposure, allowing him to contemplate the scene before him and to arrange it into a picture. With the Graflex, the photographer can render surface, texture, and detail that approximates the capacity of the even larger view camera, which is on a tripod. The 35mm view-finder system of the Leica is conducive to a more reflexive kind of picture-making because the camera itself is smaller, providing the photographer with the ability to move quickly – in turn, it describes gesture and action easily. The larger negative of the Graflex provided more detail in the finished print, and was particularly suited to Alvarez Bravo, whose pictures appear to derive from a thoughtful, more deliberate, intellectual manner of picture-making, rather than a reliance on his immediate instincts, as was true in the work of Cartier-Bresson, for example. A look at several photographs by Alvarez Bravo from this period reveals highly symbolic and metaphoric pictures whose story-telling capacity evokes the lessons of the fable or parable. Additionally, Alvarez Bravo’s love for literature is expressed through the use of witty or suggestive titles whose meaning is often based in Mexican myth and culture. Alvarez Bravo’s sense of humor is evident in his work from the beginning – the mountain in the Hokusai-influenced Sand and Pines of the 1920s is a pile of sand – and his passion for everything photographic is revealed through word play in The Big Fish Eats the Little Ones of 1932. In the photograph, the fish hanging at the entrance to the shop of Alfredo Farrugia, who sold medicinal fish emulsion, is not real, but is a cardboard across which the word emulsion has been painted. A photographic emulsion is, of course, the substance that precipitates the light-sensitivity of the paper upon which it is coated, making the picture and its inscription appear to be a joke on the social and political aspect of the photography world and/or a lesson in life.
Alvarez Bravo had begun the use of such resonant titles as early as 1931, when he called his photograph of the optician’s shop Optical Parable, but it was not until his 1945 exhibition at the Sociedad de Arte Moderno in Mexico City that such titles were in consistent use. On the subject he has stated: “The worst thing that you can do is to title a photograph ‘Untitled,’ because then it has no differentiation from any other picture…. I first started titling my work when a gallery director asked for titles and dates on my work. I was able to think of titles but no dates.” He did not elaborate on the poetry of his titles, except to say: “You should be above language: the contradiction of thought [introduced by a title] will always enrich the inner part of ones being anyway.”
In The Lions of Coyoacan of 1929, the two statues appear to have just battled, with the defeated lion gazing upward to the heavens. The stony weight of the animals makes them and their imagined battle something of a cartoon. The picture becomes a comment, perhaps, on the inflated vanity of victors and a gentle mockery of their (and our) ferociousness and need to dominate. Optical Parable is one of Alvarez Bravo’s most famous pictures. In it, the negative has been reversed in the printing, so that our eyes are momentarily tested – part of the experience of a visit to the optician. Alvarez Bravo has commented that he was interested in our experience of a shop and its window as one approaches it from the outside, and then, upon entering and looking back out, how we experience everything in reverse: the window and the signs. The picture is a metaphor for all of life’s experiences – the idea of reversal, the idea of opposites, the idea of inside and out – and it provides us with the opportunity to experience the idea of reversed experience, as a work of art. There is also something uncanny in our experience of the photograph through the trick Alvarez Bravo has momentarily played on us – it turns out that the world is not what we think it is.
The experience of many of Alvarez Bravo’s photographs begins with the idea of looking or seeing, as in Optical Parable. In The Daughter of the Dancers of 1933 a young woman looks through a mysterious portal in a wall – X-ray Window of 1940 is a view of a display of medical x-rays outside a shop – and in Laughing Mannequins of 1930 a row of glamorous cardboard women looks at us and laughs. The two men in Fire Workers of 1935 wear hoods with “windows” for eyes. The deliberate attention to looking or seeing in these photographs is intellectual and gently ironic as it emphasizes the photographic act of looking. It is also a kind of homage on the part of Alvarez Bravo to the medium of photography itself.
Like Modotti, Alvarez Bravo achieved an elegance and symmetry in his pictures of subjects outside the studio. In the case of Modotti, they were subjects rife with political and social connotations – in the case of Alvarez Bravo, they were subjects that seemed to emerge whole and entirely from his endless imagination. Nevertheless, it was the Mexican culture and people that provided the basis for the work of both artists.
The fantasy in Alvarez Bravo’s photographs from this period also became characteristic of his work. For example, The Daydream of 1931 is a simple, direct picture of a young girl standing on a balcony caught in a wistful moment by the photographer. Alvarez Bravo glanced up to see the girl as he sat reading Dostoevski in the tenement where he lived, jumped up to retrieve his Graflex, and returned to find her in the same pose. Despite its simplicity, the picture is a rhapsody of longing, lament, or revery. The construction of the picture puts the young woman at some distance from us, behind the barrier of the fence whose angles are repeated in the angle formed by the position of her arms. The light on her right side, and especially on her shoulder, seems to emanate from above, singling her out. Her insulated experience is not betrayed by the photographer, or by us, in the slightest. In its quietude and its sense of the solitary, the picture exists in a kind of vacuum, while it simultaneously conveys its message across time and place.
This dreamlike quality, drawn so persuasively that it appears absolute, became an established motif in the work of Alvarez Bravo by 1935. In pictures like Ladder of Ladders of 1931 and The Crouched Ones of 1934 we experience aspects of Mexican life in such a way as to feel that we have been brought into the interior of the cultural milieu.
The Daughter of the Dancers and Portrait of the Eternalof 1935 are more self-conscious pictures because they were clearly staged. Their symbolic aspect is so strong and at the same time so cryptic that they are like puzzles. As in Kertész‘s photograph of the couple presumably gazing through a hole in a fence, we must wonder what it is that the girl sees, or what she seeks. Nissan Perez has written that her awkwardly placed feet, with one foot atop the other as she stands on her toes, evokes the figures in early, pre-Spanish Mexican reliefs and carvings. Perez has also suggested that the girl, dressed in Mexican costume may be interpreted as representing a Mexico searching for its past through the hole in the well-worn wall. (MoMA Retrospective)
André Kertész and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Arles, 1979 by Jean Dieuzaide