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The Photographer’s Hand: Rare Prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

A new exhibition celebrates the master of Mexican modernist photography.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo. El ensueño, 1931. © Manuel Álvarez Bravo, courtesy of the artist and the photographers’ Gallery.

“I think that a visual artist’s philosophy develops much more freely than a writer’s or a thinker’s philosophy. It is not so disciplined. The photographer works with both his eyes and his mind,” said Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002), the Mexican master of modern photography.

What often goes unnoticed is the hand of the artist that reveals itself in the darkroom. A new exhibition, “Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Everyday Theatre”, brings together rare lifetime prints by the photographer that reveal the exquisite nuances of his work. 

Álvarez Bravo was largely self-taught and favored platinum printing, a technique Tina Modotti introduced him to in 1928. He reveled in the complex process’s tonal precision. Due to the difficulty of obtaining the necessary materials, Álvarez Bravo was unable to print in this manner for the better part of his career. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he was able to resume this technique, which he remained committed to for the remainder of his years.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Ensayo de danza, 1920s. © Manuel Álvarez Bravo, courtesy of the artist and the photographers’ Gallery.

A Revolutionary Moment

Manuel Álvarez Bravo began printing his own work at the outset of his career, at the very end of the Mexican Revolution in a period known as the Mexican Renaissance. ”When I was a youth and picked up a camera, I had great admiration for this amazing invention. There was an incredible means of expression that this incredible technology provided,” he told the New York Times in 2001, then age 99.

Inspired by the work of Eugène Atget, who chronicled a changing Paris in the early 1900s, Álvarez Bravo used photography to explore and discover the rapidly changing landscape of his native Mexico City. He soon turned inward, looking to tradition for inspiration. ”Before the Conquest, all art was of the people, and popular art has never ceased to exist in Mexico,” Álvarez Bravo wrote.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Frida Kahlo con globo, 1938. © Manuel Álvarez Bravo, courtesy of the artist and the photographers’ Gallery.

In 1929, he began teaching photography at Escuela Central de Artes Plasticas, where Diego Rivera worked as director, and later at Mexican Folkways magazine, where he met painters David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clement Orozco. As these artists, along with Rivera and Frida Kahlo, brought Mexican muralism to the forefront of modern art, Álvarez Bravo became an integral voice in the flowering of Mexican art, culture, and identity on the world stage. While he eschewed the overt political approach of his contemporaries, Álvarez Bravo embraced the indigenous influences of his native land, which was in and of itself a political act. 

“The art that is made in Mexico is not some sort of pre-Hispanic art, it is an art of the present,” he told the New York Times in 1993. No longer beholden to Spanish colonial iconography, Álvarez Bravo and his contemporaries were free to explore and blend aspects of indigenous archetypes, social documentary themes, surrealist experimentation, and modernist formalism into a wholly new visual language.

Beauty, Poetry and Mystery

”Shoot what you see, not what you think. A photographer’s philosophy should be not to have one,” Manuel Álvarez Bravo told his students over the years. Embracing possibility, Álvarez Bravo explored all photographic procedures and graphic techniques, erasing the superficial boundaries imposed by those seeking to compartmentalize the artistic process. 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo. El umbral, c.1933. © Manuel Álvarez Bravo, courtesy of the artist and the photographers’ Gallery.

Álvarez Bravo adopted this as his approach to life itself. “The maestro, as they call him, is working today, too, though it is not always possible to tell where the work ends and other things begin,” Tim Golden wrote of a 1993 studio visit with the photographer. “Like his photographs, Mr. Alvarez Bravo seems to invite and resist interpretation at the same time.” 

Perhaps this was because the artist saw his work “more related to Mexican art and Mexican life than to photographic traditions,” a position that inherently resists co-optation. His enigmatic images, ripe with symbol and metaphor, speak to the artist’s love for the beauty, poetry, and mystery of his native Mexico. ”You bring your accumulated life to the moment that something sparks you to make an image,” Álvarez Bravo said. ”Everything influences you. And it’s all good.”

Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Everyday Theatre” will be on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until May 22, 2022.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Espejo negro, 1947. © Manuel Álvarez Bravo, courtesy of the artist and the photographers’ Gallery.

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