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An Impulse for Genius

Reflections on a Life Behind the Lens: Manuel Alvarez Bravo's First 100 Years

November 04, 2001|MARK EDWARD HARRIS AND MARINA DE SANTIAGO HAAS | Mark Edward Harris is a Los Angeles photographer who last wrote for the magazine about two brothers who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Marina de Santiago Haas is a writer and artist who lives in Mexico City

We first met Manuel Alvarez Bravo on a humid June afternoon at his studio in the historic Coyoacan district of Mexico City. Though we had not been to this area of Mexico's capital before, the cobblestone streets of Bravo's neighborhood looked familiar. Once inside his "studio," we immediately understood why. It looks very much like the streets and neighborhoods in his photographs: his work space is merely an extension of the city around him, separated only by a door for privacy.

Bravo greets us at that door. He has the shuffling gate of someone nearing his 100th birthday, a small man whose old clothes hardly suggest he's one of the giants of photography in the 20th century, and the most influential figure of the medium in Mexico. To celebrate Bravo's 100th birthday Feb. 4, 2002, the J. Paul Getty Museum is showing a collection of his work from Nov. 13 through Feb. 17. RoseGallery at the Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica will feature his work for two months, beginning Feb. 2.

What is your feeling about reaching 100?

I don't think about that at all. Life goes on . . . reaching 100 won't change anything. Also, I have no worries, I let things happen and go along with them.

Looking back over the century, how do you regard your work?

I feel I've done my part. I think I contributed something, in whatever way I did. I'm at peace in that respect.

Growing up in this historic part of Mexico City, were you aware of the cultural richness that surrounded you?

As a boy, whenever I wouldn't go out with my friends on Sundays, I would go to one of two museums that were very close to where I lived. One museum was the anthropology and history museum, which has pre-Hispanic art. This work is very important to me because of the cultural heritage. The other museum was the San Carlos Museum, which contains European art. How did your exposure to those influences affect your work?

Of course it had a great influence, but one doesn't really know how one receives influences. It's like food. You eat it and then it affects you. We are all influenced by what surrounds us culturally, physically, politically. But how that emerges from my work is for others to interpret. When one takes a photograph, one doesn't think about saying anything in particular. One doesn't think about making a statement, but rather of creating something visual which can later bear a meaning that one didn't intend to transmit--depending upon the viewer's interpretation but not necessarily on the photographer's.

Many interpreters of your work consider it surrealistic.

Except for a few photographs, I would say my work is more fantasy. Fantasy is totally from the imagination. Surrealism has a bit of reality in it.

Your title "Parabola Optic" ("Optic Parable," 1931), for the image of the optometrist's office, is intriguing.

The name says it all; things are not like they seem to be, they're like a parable. When you stand in front of a window, you see something one way. Then when you go inside, you see it's the other way around. So that's why I've printed the image in reverse.

Did you study printing and photography in school?

Actually, no, I taught myself. I had finished school early. I went to work instead.

What type of work did you do?

First I worked at a company that manufactured textiles, and then a year later, at 14, I took up a job in the government as a bureaucrat. I held several positions in the government (from 1916 to 1943).

How were you able to continue your interest in the arts while trying to make a living? Initially, I started getting the knowledge and influence in painting and other art fields because of the interest of some of my friends. One was in fact the nephew of the painter Joaqu'n Clausell. And then around 1922 the first Picasso book arrived in Mexico. It stirred up my mind. Until that time the only painters I knew were classic painters. Picasso revolutionized my mind.

Enough to pursue becoming a painter?

Yes, at that time I was drawn into painting. But it was very difficult to attend the painting lessons because they were evening classes. I was busy taking other courses at the School of Commerce and Administration. The schedules were incompatible. I thought that photography would be much easier. Eventually I found out that it was more difficult than painting because of the technical complications of the equipment in those days. I used photography magazines as technical guides.

You became acquainted with many well-known photographers, including Andre Breton, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Tina Modotti from their visits to Mexico.

I've been very fortunate to have made the acquaintances of so many great artists, not just photographers, but painters and writers as well. Diego Rivera was a teacher of mine in a way. How he represented Mexican culture in his work had a great influence.

One of your most famous photographs is of his wife, the legendary painter Frida Kahlo, who often worked with Mexican themes but in a very different way.

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