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Parables of jarring reality

Los Angeles

Lurking behind avant-garde juxtaposition of shapes in the images of Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo is the jarring edge of reality.

Alvarez Bravo, who launched his career in the artistic fervor of post-Revolutionary Mexico, is generally considered one of the masters of 20th-century photography. He turns 100 on Feb. 4.

“Optical Parables,” a show exhibiting nearly 100 of his photographs, some rarely displayed, opened last month at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Alvarez Bravo’s long career links a fascination with artistic form to powerful if sometimes subtle social commentary.

When Alvarez Bravo was developing his craft, Mexico had become a Mecca for post-World War I artists and intellectuals eager to observe attempts to implement the social vision of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexico of Alvarez Bravo is the Mexico of Diego Rivera, Sergei Eisenstein, even Trotsky, who was murdered there.

Encouraged by avant-garde photographers like Tina Modotti, companion of Edward Weston, Alvarez Bravo rendered the gritty urban environment of Mexico City where he was born in images that show both social awareness and acute aesthetic sensitivity.

The show’s title comes from a single photograph, “Optical Parable,” made in 1931. The plural “Optical Parables” of the overall exhibition mirrors the questions the image raises about the process of seeing and the power of images.

“The ‘parable’ of the picture is about the unreliability of looking, about ... the alteration of viewpoint, and therefore about the nature of photography itself,” according to a new Getty book about Alvarez Bravo. The photograph suggests “there’s double meaning in everything,” added exhibition co-curator Mikka Gee Conway.

Alvarez Bravo printed the negative backwards, reversing the letters on the storefront and signs as if viewers were looking at the image in a mirror. Even the name plays tricks. The Spanish word parábola also means “parable.” The curved figure of the parabola is obvious in the repeated image of the human eye in the photograph.

Some photographs in the exhibition deal with religious themes, some directly, some less so. As an example of the first category, the 1942 “Cross of Chalma” captures a roadside shrine in an area famous for miracles in the colonial period and still the site of pilgrimages.

“For the Sheep’s Wool,” from 1932, uses Christian iconography in a more subtle way. The photograph shows a dead sheep at the road’s edge, the diagonal line of the curb framing the animal’s lifeless shape. Originally displayed in a 1940 Surrealist exhibition, the image transforms the animal into a sort of dirty, urban paschal lamb lying dumb on a Mexican street.

Two thematically dissimilar photographs displayed together in the exhibition dramatically illustrate the interplay of aesthetics and social commentary in Alvarez Bravo’s work.

The subjects of “Striking Worker Murdered” and the “The Good Reputation Sleeping,” both well-known images by the Mexican master, could hardly seem more different. The first, dating from 1934, shows a young man, dead, lying in a pool of blood. The second, from 1938, is a female nude.

Despite the apparent contrasts, however, the two photographs reveal striking similarities. Both the slain worker and the nude model recline, the young man bathed in blood, the woman awash in sunlight. The worker’s arm forms an X-shape with the line etched into the dirt by his blood. The model makes a similar shape by crossing one leg over the other.

The nude is an attractive young woman, her upper body bare, her middle partly covered by a light-colored bandage. And the shocking sight of the freshly murdered striker doesn’t obscure the young man’s paradoxically handsome features. “He had a very youthful body, face, and hand,” Alvarez Bravo is reported to have said. “I think his name was Rosendo.”

Juxtaposing the slain worker and lush nude might be seen as trivializing the brutality behind the photograph of the murdered striker. Yet the two images show how form and content are inextricably linked in Alvarez Bravo’s work, the attention to the elements of pictorial composition highlighting aspects of the social realities he portrayed.

The stuff of Mexican life after the Revolution -- its storefronts, sidewalks, people, and rural scenes -- provides the raw material for Alvarez Bravo’s play with pattern and form.

Several photographs in the exhibition demonstrate Alvarez Bravo’s keen interest in the theme of work.

Among these, “Workers of the Tropics” portrays agricultural workers standing cramped in what appears the bed of a farm truck. While the photograph documents a slice of the laborers’ day, the picture is about more than farm work.

With the vehicle emerging from behind palm trees, Alvarez Bravo frames the workers behind the repeating patterns of the fronds, the lines echoing the metal ribs of the vehicle’s grille.

The overpowering leaves, accentuated by the photograph’s composition, dwarf the workers and place their labor squarely in its tropical context.

An equally striking image, “Fire Workers,” shows two laborers clad head to foot in fire-resistant suits. The protective clothing, complete with headgear, converts the workers into otherworldly automatons. The photograph not only suggests the fascination with the machine in the early 20th-century avant-garde, but sparks reflection on the impact of work on human beings.

Photographs in the exhibition by photographers contemporary with Alvarez Bravo illustrate influences in the Mexican master’s development.

Tina Modotti’s 1927 “Hands Resting on a Tool” and Alvarez Bravo’s 1931 “Study of Tamayo’s Hands” betray similarities but also serve as reminder of the importance of vision underlying the entire Alvarez Bravo show.

Modotti’s image shows a laborer’s rough hands resting on a shovel handle. Beaming down from directly overhead, what appears to be a noonday sun highlights the weathered creases in the worker’s fingers.

Alvarez Bravo’s photograph, however, focuses on the hands of Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. The object the two photographs reproduce is the same. But instead of the hardened texture of the worker, Alvarez Bravo shows the smooth skin of the artist.

The contrast suggests the paradox of the wider exhibition. Nurtured by ideas imported from the high culture of the industrialized world between the World Wars, Alvarez Bravo left compelling images of his native Mexico struggling to redefine itself artistically and politically after the Revolution.

The Getty exhibition provides carefully crafted glimpses into Mexican life as it documents the development of that country’s greatest photographer.

“Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Optical Parables” runs through Feb. 17 at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Ted Parks writes from Malibu, Calif.

Related Web Site
J.Paul Getty Museum

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001