“Mexico’s Poet of Light” Creates a World of Magic & Intrigue

Photo: Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Window on the Agaves (Ventana a los magueyes), 1976, printed ca. 1981, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Lawrence and Carol Zicklin, 1987/1.174.3

“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,” the great Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002) observed.

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Álvarez Bravo was a populist, one perfectly in tune with the times, his life’s work a tribute to his nation and his people. The result is a singular career and legacy that is being celebrated with a new exhibition that explores his vast body of work. Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light, now on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, through October 23, 2016, presents 23 photographs drawn from the museum’s collection.

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The 1920s were a fertile period for the artist’s early years. In 1925, he married his first of three wives, Lola Álvarez Bravo, who was also a photographer. In 1927, he met photographer Tina Modotti, who had a studio with Edward Weston, and together they became a force of activism and the avant garde. Modotti introduced Álvarez Bravo to artists and intellectuals in Mexico City, who supported his work. In 1930, he quit his government job to become a full-time freelance photographer. That same year, Modotti was deported from Mexico for her Communist activities. Before leaving for Berlin she gave Álvarez Bravo her camera and her job at Mexican Folkways magazine.

Álvarez Bravo gained international renown as his work presented a distinct and dynamic look at Mexico during the twentieth century. His works were heavily layered with ancient symbols, paradoxes, and ambiguities that brought together the forces of the universe in a single photograph. He observed, “I think that light and shadow have exactly the same duality that exists between life and death.”

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Woman Combing Her Hair (Retrato de lo eterno), 1932-33, printed 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1985/1.130.2

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Woman Combing Her Hair (Retrato de lo eterno), 1932-33, printed 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1985/1.130.2

 

The work of Álvarez Bravo deftly combines a wide array of aesthetic influences of the time, including Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction, which the artist brilliantly cross-pollinates with distinctly Mexican subject matter to tremendous effect. Working alongside artists including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Álvarez Bravo is an emblematic figure from the period often called the Mexican Renaissance. A time of extraordinary creativity and innovation, the artists of this period combined the modern and the traditional to compelling effect, launching contemporary Mexican artists on the world’s stage.

While he was alive, Álvarez Bravo held over 150 individual exhibitions and participated in over 200 collective exhibitions. He exemplified his belief that “every photographer must be living at all times,” and in doing so his work becomes a continuous presence long after he has gone. Perhaps it is as simple as this: adopt a philosophy that will allow you to be fully in the moment. As Álvarez Bravo revealed, “Throughout my life I’ve never pursued anything. I just let things pursue me… they just show up… This is the way I’ve lead my life, not just in photography, but in life.”

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The Man from Papantla (Señor de Papantla), 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1983/1.101.8

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The Man from Papantla (Señor de Papantla), 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1983/1.101.8


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.