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Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 100; Mexican Photographer

Times Staff Writer

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the “maestro” of Mexican photography whose images captured the complexity and beauty of the country’s indigenous roots and its Spanish heritage, its harsh natural beauty and its delicacy, died Saturday at his home in Mexico City. He was 100.

Alvarez Bravo died of natural causes. He was hospitalized this month for a lung infection but was released on Oct. 14.

Widely regarded as the leading Latin American photographer of the 20th century, he was, as poet Octavio Paz noted, Mexico’s foremost visual storyteller, narrating a sequence of Mexican history through his poetic eye.

“He has shown us realities in rotation, momentary freezes of time,” wrote Paz. “Everything entwines and untwines. Revelations of the instant but also instants of revelation.”

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Much of that reality dealt with the destitution of the poor and the working class in Mexico City’s streets.

Alvarez Bravo cited his 1931 photo, “The Dreamer” as one of his favorites, where he captured a young boy napping on a concrete block with only a sheet beneath him, with his face toward the sky as if dreaming of a better life.

“I am happy to have lived those streets,” Alvarez Bravo once said. “There everything was food for my camera, everything had an inherent social content; in life everything has a social content.”

Alvarez Bravo, born in 1902, was the fifth child in a family of eight children in Mexico City. His father was a teacher and his mother the caretaker. Growing up during the time of the Mexican Revolution, he studied accounting in school and began working at the National Treasury at the age of 14.

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But as a young adult, he yearned to produce something creatively and was attracted to photography while studying art in the evenings at the Academia San Carlos.

In 1924, he bought his first camera, a Century Master, and trained himself to be a photographer by learning techniques from books and periodicals. Five years later, Alvarez Bravo was doing enough professional photography to quit his treasury job. When his friend and fellow photographer Tina Modotti was expelled from Mexico in 1930 for her political beliefs, Alvarez Bravo took over her job as the photographer of the works of such muralists as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros and also photographed for a publication called Mexican Folkways.

When photographic commissions were slow during the 1930s, Alvarez Bravo taught photography at the San Carlos Academy. His marriage in 1925 to Lola Martinez de Anda, whom he had known since 1916, ended in divorce in 1934. They had one son, Manuel Alvarez Bravo Martinez. In 1962, Alvarez Bravo married Colette Alvarez Urbajtel, who survives him, as do his son; two daughters, Aurelia and Genoveva; and a grandson. His photography reflected the many interests of Alvarez Bravo -- a man whose graciousness allowed him entry to the spheres of the rich and educated as well as the poor and humble.

As Arthur Ollman, the director of San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, wrote in a catalog for an exhibition of the photographer’s work, “There are many Manuel Alvarez Bravos. That is his power. There is the pre-Columbian Alvarez Bravo, a worshiper of bulls and sacrificer of virgins ... whose work and thought abound with Mayan and Aztec symbols.... There is another Alvarez Bravo who is purely Mexican in the revolutionary spirit.... This Alvarez Bravo is a trenchant worshiper of justice, enemy of all oppressors, a proud eagle devouring a snake while perched on a cactus.”

Though he was a celebrated photographer in Mexico and Europe, he was not as well known in the United States until the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) held a retrospective of his work in 1971. The show then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The J. Paul Getty Museum was among several leading American museums to mount a major retrospective of his work to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday Feb. 4.

Alvarez Bravo lived during one of Mexico’s most enlightened eras, when intellectuals and revolutionaries were at the center of the country’s artistic movements.

Just as Rivera chronicled Mexico’s history, indigenous roots and cultural identity in paintings, Alvarez Bravo chronicled the pulse of Mexico through his photographs.

His circle of friends included Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Juan Rulfo, Rufino Tamayo, Paul Strand, Sergei Eisenstein, D.H. Lawrence and Modotti. Though Alvarez Bravo never joined the Communist Party and Rivera, Kahlo and Modotti did, he was sympathetic to leftist causes.

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His friendships with the intellectuals and bohemians who gathered in Mexico at the time reflected one of the many aspects of his character.

“This was the educated, urbane, Europeanized Alvarez Bravo,” wrote Ollman. “This Alvarez Bravo knows what the world thinks and needs Mexico to be: a land of surrealism and free association, an illogical region where ancient civilization miscegenates with Euro-American fantasy. This anything-goes Mexico, a saintly yet violent country, so loved and believed in by the art world, a Mexico for slumming gringos.”

It was through Modotti that Alvarez Bravo became acquainted with Edward Weston, who later showed with Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1929. Even though Weston had never heard of the young Mexican photographer, he was impressed with Alvarez Bravo’s images, calling them “photographs of better than usual technique, and of excellent viewpoint.”

Modotti had become a close friend of Alvarez Bravo, introducing him to many of the artistic and intellectual elite of the era. When Modotti was banished from Mexico, Alvarez Bravo was the only friend to bid her farewell as she left for the Soviet Union.

“I got [to the train station first] and it gave her great pleasure to see me,” he said to a biographer once. “She took a window seat and I sat down next to her in the train, and when the whistles blew I got off and waved to her from below. She was still very nervous but ... she showed the same friendliness and warmth as always.”

Like Modotti, Alvarez Bravo focused primarily on the common people. He captured the beauty in the everyday occurrences of life and nature and had the patience required to capture a spontaneous moment.

In 1934, Alvarez Bravo met Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who, like Alvarez Bravo, was known for capturing authentic human interaction. The young Cartier-Bresson arrived in Mexico as part of a photographic expedition sponsored by the Mexican government. But when funding for that fell through, he hooked up with Alvarez Bravo and the pair shared an exhibition of their photographs in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts.

Alvarez Bravo’s interpretations were often laced with surrealist detail. He was heavily influenced by his friends, the surrealist artists Man Ray and Andre Breton. Breton, in fact, asked Alvarez Bravo to shoot the catalog cover photograph for the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition.

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In a moment of “truly surrealist” inspiration, Alvarez Bravo created the concept for “Good Reputation Sleeping,” which became one of his most recognized photographs. The image of a nude, bandaged woman lying beside cactus buds was a testament to his surrealist influences. The cactus flowers at the side of a sleeping woman symbolized danger lurking beneath a serene exterior. His art, however, could not be used for the cover due to censorship laws that forbade such graphic photographs.

Alvarez Bravo’s observant eye captured ugly scenes of labor disputes exploding throughout Mexico in the 1930s. His photograph “Striking Worker, Assassinated” shows a young man lying dead after a demonstration.

Of this photograph, Paz wrote: “The realism of this image is startling and one can say, without exaggeration, that it approaches the electrical territory of myth and the sacred. The fallen man is bathed in his own blood, and that blood is silent: He has fallen into his silence, into silence itself.”

Death was a subject that long fascinated Alvarez Bravo. Growing up in the throes of the Mexican Revolution, he often encountered bodies on the street or in the countryside. The Mexican ceremony, Day of the Dead, was also a subject of intrigue.

The death he witnessed as a boy obviously had an impact on him as a photographer.

“One does not exactly know how one’s own sensibility and mentality formed. It undoubtedly had an influence on me,” he once told an interviewer. "... On [the Day of Dead] they used to sell children toys representing death--skulls made of sugar which we would eat. I think this is where the real feeling of Mexican duality comes from--the duality of life and death.”

The graphic reality of death and Mexico’s violent city streets were not his only backdrop.

Unlike his photographs that show such power and evoke strong emotions, Alvarez Bravo was a shy, diminutive man. He would often pass his time observing nature and reading.

He was particularly fond of Mexico’s magueys--a type of cactus that is as much a part of Mexican identity as the Virgin of Guadalupe and the national flag. In his 1930 photograph “Behind the Wall, Magueys,” he captures the plant’s natural movement, almost as if it is dancing behind a concrete wall.

In his 1932 “Washerwomen Implied,” he captures the forceful beauty of the Mexican countryside with white sheets hanging on enormous magueys and full, puffy white clouds blowing in the background. His photograph leaves open mysteries, as Paz wrote:

“Clouds for sculpting images that a puff of wind will scatter. What games, what rites are being acted out by the washerwomen, hidden behind the whiteness?”

Alvarez Bravo was very modest about his work and his accomplishments. He lived comfortably in his home in Coyaocan for most of his life, surrounded by his photos. The fact that he was Mexico’s greatest photographer never seemed to phase him.

“It is a pleasure to see that what one does has a significance, communicates with other people, produces an interest and pleasure. This does not mean searching for recognition -- it happens,” he said in an interview. “I think one’s work should always be a form of research, examination, inspection. It is like a stone thrown in the water -- it makes ripples that go outward.”

Graciela Iturbide, the noted Mexican photographer who worked as his assistant in the 1960s, said he would set up and wait for those instants he would capture on film.

“What impressed me, what I most remember, is that he had time for everything,” she told The Times some years ago. “To read, to listen to music. He was on Mexican time. He was not in a hurry. He waited until he got what he wanted.”

His body lay in state Saturday at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He will be buried today.


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