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Through February 17, 2002 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, West Los Angeles

by Marlena Donohue

"There are many Manuel Alvarez Bravos. There is the pre Colombian Bravo, a worshipper of bulls and a sacrificer of virgins, who dances with the Mayan gods Chac and Xipe and takes no prisoners. This Bravo is so far from being understood in the United States that he seems a shaman speaking in tongues, a primitive in paint and feathers. The other Bravo is a revolutionary spirit, a Villista [for Pancho Villa], a purveyor of social struggle, a campesino suspicious of the U.S., a trickster outwitting the Anglo world. Then there is the educated, urbane Bravo who knows what the world needs Mexico to be, a land of Surrealism and free associations, an illogical region where ancient civilizations mix with Euro-American fantasy."
--Nissan Perez.

Master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo turns 100 this February, an event marked by this handsome overview. Frail, cautious of his time and person, Bravo still goes into the studio regularly, still lives in the small suburb of Coyaucan, Mexico where he was born. His is not a name on everyone's lips like Edward Weston, nor is he on everyone's calendar art (mercifully). Yet Bravo stands as a key figure in photographic history, one who had formative, two-way contact with touchstones from Weston to Paul Strand to Cartier Bresson, all who passed (along with Artaud, Hemmingway, John Houston, Langston Hughes) through Bravo's sphere in the 1930s and '40s.

This complex trajectory of Bravo's life, times and inputs are clarified here, beginning with the very early Paper Games works. Folded white paper was shot at very close range with a manipulated light source. This tightly limited values so that abstract planes are emphasized. Here and in the gorgeous Cactus Landscape, Bravo shows that early on he "got" Picasso, Cubism, and the primary lessons from Hokusai's prints. Whatever other influences would come to inform his style, to Bravo a photo is an essentially graphic medium that records the world, can alter our reality base, but is always subject to formal constraints. He seems to have known this instinctually, from day one.

Bravo's characteristic vision is complex to pinpoint. It consists of a narrative, cultural, and formal range decanted through diverse, prodigious sources, but never subsumed under them. Still, a few of Bravo's images are becoming part of our photo historical memory, such as Daydream, in which a young girl is lost in reverie on a veranda swathed in delicate, dramatic light. But certain lesser known images establish a breadth of allusions, sources and the ultimate singularity that are hard to forget. The Crouched Ones captures a rhythmic row of simple country men--campesinos. Their lumbering, abstracted backs face us and are bathed in shadow as they hunch over their food at some rustic roadside stand. They seem more bent by their condition than their bodies. In its painterly composition the work refers to Guillermo Kahlo (a German pictorialist and father of Frida) and Hugo Brehme (a follower of Kahlo who helped Bravo buy his first camera). In the starkness of its drama, the image recalls Paul Strand's New York street people (Strand made films in Mexico and met Bravo there). The spareness of its line additionally acknowledges Weston and his lover Tina Modotti, who Bravo befriended. The timeless ethnicity of the figures was influenced by the Mexican muralists, and in that eerie light which decapitates the figures we see reflected Bravo's contact with the Surrealist movement and its guru Andre Breton, who met Bravo in Mexico during the '30s.

Born in 1901 to grandfather who was a portrait painter, and a father who was an amateur painter, photographer and writer, Bravo's youth and most likely his liberal education were derailed and molded by Revolution and the explosion of the Modern era into 20th century Mexico. Bravo came of age in a Mexico in which 800 wealthy families held all the land in Mexico, and nearly seven million rural laborers earned a few pesos a week. A string of rebels deposed the dictator Diaz, each in their turn assassinated until the general election of Ernesto Obregon as President of Mexico in 1920.

Obregon's "brave new" government would eventually persecute artists with communist leanings, among them Rivera, Kahlo and Modotti, and when it was all said and done, two million lives were lost. Suffice it to say that Bravo matured in the intense maelstrom of indigenous pride, left leaning politics, danger, hope, disillusionment, great creative ferment. As this exhibit indicates, Bravo's works are deeply, subtly imbued by all of these.

By 1922 Bravo was working as a bureaucrat in the Department of Power and Transportation, where his job as the assistant to department head, Hugo Conway included gathering Conway's mail. In this mail Bravo found publications like Amateur Photographer, Photography, and to quote a dumb cliche, the rest is history. He won his first regional prize for photography in 1927; had his first real exhibition in 1926, showing with Weston and Modotti.

Walking that show he recounts hearing the painter Rufino Tamayo admiring his photos. Bravo identified himself and the two men became fast friends. It was through Tamayo and Modotti that Bravo and his wife Lola entered the circle of Mexican leftist intelligencia forming in the late 20s He taught the Academy of San Carlos with Rivera.

In Worker Assassinated a campesino seems asleep in a pool of liquid that slowly comes to be recognized as blood. The work has been pegged as social realism--Bravo recounts seeing scenes like this in his youth. Yet we also know that Bravo's second wife Heyden was an archeologist, and Bravo himself is fluent in Mexico's pre-Colombian history. In the way he handles the details here, there is a dual reference to Talc, the Aztec God of Rain/Water, to whom young boys were sacrificed so that the land could grow fruitful. Such tiering of content illuminates Bravo's complex persona, personal history as well as Mexico's equally valenced cultural history. Because of his mastery as an imagemaker and a teller of timeless tales, Bravo never seems to preach politics or ethnicity directly, yet all this conflated subtext is there--quietly.

The Revolution sponsored exposure to Pre-Hispanic, indigenous, national art styles through civic exhibitions and magazines. Mexican Folkways magazine held shots of indigenous ancient and contemporary folk arts, and Weston's lover Modotti was hired to take these. When she was deported for subversion, she passed the job along to Bravo, and by 1933, Bravo had become Folkways' contributing editor, had his first one-man exhibition, shows in New York with Bresson and had become the premier name associated with so-called documentary photography in Mexico and consolidated an international career.

The integrated instincts of a cinematographer, a surrealist and an ethnographer can be seen in the famous image Good Reputation Sleeping (1938). As the story goes, Bravo received a phone call from Breton in Paris speaking through a translator. Breton spoke of his pending visit to Mexico and the planned Nocturnal Sphinx show. He asked Bravo to shoot an image for the catalogue cover. Bravo grabbed a model, and had his friend Dr. Francisco Arturo Martin wrap her in suggestive gauze bandages, leaving breasts and pubic area uncovered. As he composed the scene, he decided to lay the model on an indigenous blanket alongside the very dangerous abreojos cacti, known to be so prickly that the least wind causes them to give off spines sharp enough to go through shoes. Though billed as surrealism, the complex image is loaded with complex referents to sacrifice, death, ritual, eroticism, and the cactus as a symbol for a unique region and ethos.

The Getty has one of the deepest troves of Bravo works and enough additional photo holdings to draw on so as to successfully contextualize his life and times. One can contemplate Bravo's Optical Parable (a glass store window printed as a reversed negative; the resulting reversed mirror image shortcircuits our sense of the real rather than records it) alongside an Atget--its probable source--to reveal how Bravo is able to consistently manipulate the coincidental collision of elements that transform the everyday into more than an oddity, into a parable. Also included are works by Modotti, Weston, Strand, showing how Bravo traveled quickly through sources, claimed the crux of the lesson, and made of them something utterly his, utterly Latin and utterly universal at once.