Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Mexico's poet of light
by Sally Wright Day
From the September, 2016 issue
On two huge walls upstairs in the U-M Museum of Art are twenty-three small photographs. From a distance, they're simple, unassuming, black and white. Don't be fooled. This collection and its photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, are big deals.
This artist is a giant, not just in his native Mexico, but in the whole history of photographic art. And this unassuming setup? It's a setup: This show will knock your socks off if you take time to soak it in. It is, in fact, a perfect representation of Alvarez Bravo's oeuvre: deceptively simple at first glance, gut punch when you "get it."
To do that, first read the intro on the wall, which calls Alvarez Bravo "Mexico's Poet of Light." A perfect description. Yes, indeed, his photos, iconic subjects, and even his titles are poetry, evoking the same poignancy you feel from a splendid poem. And the light he's captured is extraordinary, brilliant in so many pieces.
Just as striking are their opposites: the incredibly rich blacks and the ordinariness of many of his subjects--street scenes, a marketplace, tree branch shadows, and, oh yeah, Frida Kahlo having a sit-down. It's precisely the combos of opposites that give Alvarez Bravo's work heft. Mixed with their counterparts, the blacks are that much deeper, the everyday is that much more universal, because his eye also captures a deeper meaning of history, humanity, and color.
Take Woman Combing Her Hair, titled in Spanish as Retrato de lo eterno, which translates to Portrait of the Eternal. This work is noted on the wall intro for "the dazzling light of a woman's cascading hair as she combs in the sun." With this description, you'd expect a bright photo. No, it's exactly opposite. It's so dark that it looks abstract--until you find the undulating hair and finally see the outline of the woman's face. Suddenly, "everyday" becomes timeless, just as its Spanish title promises. The composition of triangular darks and lights is exquisite.
Many other titles are similarly poetic.
Most are ironic or point to something deeper or unexpected. Take Two Pairs of Legs, which depicts exactly that--except it's a photo of a huge street art painting of a man's and woman's legs. Or Sleeping Dogs Bark (Los perros durmiendo ladran): a dog--clearly awake--lies on the ground in front of a section of wooden fence that threatens to fall over on it.
Several works were arresting just for their shapes and light. Lengthened Light (Luz restirada) shows a tree trunk on the left and shadows of its branches and leaves splayed over a huge white sheet on the right. Simple, quiet--and mesmerizing. In TV Aerial and Agave (Or Reed and Television) (Carrizo y tele), a spiky agave in the left foreground seems to mock a rooftop TV antenna on the right for mimicking its nature-made shape with its puny human-made construction. The juxtaposition is awesome.
I found it all fascinating enough to look up websites and articles galore. Especially good is ManuelAlvarezBravo.org, which is run by his third wife and includes photos from the 1920s on. It'll whet your appetite for the exhibit, which closes October 23.
[Originally published in September, 2016.]
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