"I am content with my country: good, bad, and worse than bad — I am enchanted by my country," Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo has said. His twenty elegiac dreamscapes on display at the U-M Museum of Art radiate a mesmerized affection for everyday Mexican scenes and a patient, razor-sharp skill at composition that coaxes the mundane views into acute poetry. "One has to put blinders on him till the destination of the day is reached, or he is out of film before he gets there," a friend has observed.
Though acclaimed by colleagues around the world as a master photographer, and the recipient of several prestigious awards, Alvarez Bravo — one of whose prints recently sold for $54,970 — remains so little known that even the UMMA misspelled his name on its exhibit publicity. Tucked in a closetlike, nearly hidden space around the corner from a prominently displayed Ansel Adams exhibit, the works don't draw many visitors. Given that probably every Ann Arborite has at one point owned an Ansel Adams calendar, T-shirt, or tote bag, I wish the museum had chosen instead to spotlight Alvarez Bravo's differently beautiful but equally deserving work.
The sinister Box of Visions presents a woman holding a cloth like a tent over her head, her body encased in a festively decorated box into which three battered viewing boxes are inset. How Small the World Is depicts a tiny woman and man on a vast sidewalk next to a wall over which hang pennants of immaculate white laundry, hinting at commonalities connecting separate lives. Window to the Choir (left) shows a tiny window deeply set in a narrow street of hill-shaped houses seemingly carved and smoothed from solid rock. It prompts an immediate desire to climb the inches-wide stairs and touch the sun-warmed domelike wall.
The problem with these three and at least three other prints in the UMMA exhibit is that they seem overexposed when compared with those featured in Aperture magazine's breathtaking 1997 Alvarez Bravo monograph and in its 1987 Alvarez Bravo collection. This impression was reinforced by a second trip to the exhibit with a photographer friend in tow. Aperture prints held next to exhibit prints revealed a distinct detail-obscuring muddiness in the latter. The muddiness changed the meaning of several photos. In the UMMA's Box of Visions, the woman's facial expression is eclipsed by shadow. In the Aperture print, her visible face projects resigned dread, creating an entirely different impression. Similarly, Aperture's Portrait of the Eternal offers a chiaroscuro Madonna; the UMMA's, a figure mired in shadow. Although Alvarez Bravo's vision still shines through, "it's like listening to a CD on three-inch speakers instead of full-sized ones," as my friend noted. The nonetheless compelling visual music is on display through October 13.