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Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 100; Mexican Photographer

October 21, 2002|Lorenza Munoz | 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."

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.

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.

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

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