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Alvarez Bravo's camera made time stand still

October 22, 2002|Arthur Ollman | Special to The Times

"Hay tiempo." These words were casually hand-printed in his darkroom, on a small sign next to his enlarger. "There is time." For Manuel Alvarez Bravo, there was always time. What other medium is more essential?

There was a feeling of abundant time around Don Manuel. I always felt it in his presence. Perhaps it was his calm and deliberate pace, his gentle demeanor. Perhaps it was that I didn't get to know him until the late 1980s, when he was in his late 80s. He seemed to take time to consider whatever it was that he wanted to focus on.

For many people around the world, he embodied Latin American photography. Even among young photographers, who continuously seek to break with the traditions of their medium, Alvarez Bravo was a beloved great-grandfather. In my 36 years in the photographic arts, I never heard a single personal criticism of him.

In 1966, I spent a month hitchhiking and photographing in Mexico. In Oaxaca, I found a poster advertising an exhibition of the photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. The image on the poster was a portrait of a young woman whose face was striped by the shadows of a palm frond. I stole the poster from the wall, and I probably still have it. I found the exhibition and was thoroughly and permanently changed by the photographs. I tried with every exposure that month to replicate his imagery. The poetic evocations, the rich and mysterious references to pre-Columbian symbols and recognition of the transformative power of Mexico's intense light, all were beyond my understanding of the medium. I was 21, and Alvarez Bravo was a giant.

Twenty-four years later, as a curator and the director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, I asked Don Manuel if I could work with him to create a career retrospective to tour the United States. After several days of conversations, to my great good fortune, he agreed. This bilingual show, "Revelaciones: The Art of Manuel Alvarez Bravo," opened in San Diego in 1990 and traveled to 10 American cities. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it.

Alvarez Bravo never disputed any interpretation of his work. Curators have labeled him a surrealist, called his work Freudian, Marxist, patriotic and symbolist. He has never disagreed. When I inquired, he said, "They might be right." I asked his good friend Nissan Perez, curator of photography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, to write an essay for the catalog of our exhibition. Nissan speaks and writes fluently in six languages (including Ladino, an ancient form of Spanish), and had worked with Manuel years earlier. His essay is the only one in English to interpret the pre-Columbian mythological references in much of Alvarez Bravo's work. I asked Manuel what he thought about the essay. He said it was excellent, and when I inquired if Nissan had been correct about Manuel's thinking, he said, "Maybe."

Alvarez Bravo was born in Mexico City in 1902. In his childhood there was a revolution going on outside his door. He arrived at his affection for the underclass and pride in the ancient history of Mexico at this time. He worked as a government bureaucrat until the age of 27, when he was able to work full-time in photography.

In the late '20s, he developed friendships with the great artists of the time. The muralistas Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo (whose father Guillermo was one of his photography teachers), Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Sergei Eisenstein, Maria Izquierdo, Dr. Atl, Andre Breton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rufino Tamayo, Octavio Paz: All became his friends, and the great photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo became his student as well as his first wife.

Alvarez Bravo was a quiet and humble man in a time of noisy immodesty. The major figures of his time were loud, feisty and bombastic. Rivera was a huge man who carried a pistol and dominated every room he entered. Modotti was deported for her political activities. The murals being made at the time were huge, often the size of buildings. The colors were brilliant in the dry sun. The subjects included struggling Maya gods, peasant revolutionaries wresting their living from a reluctant earth, huge backs bent to the task. Evil businessmen fought to enchain them all.

In this milieu, a small, shy man, understated nearly to the point of silence, made small black-and-white photographs of quotidian observations in the streets of Mexico City: a dog asleep at a gate, a ladder against a wall, fresh sheets hanging on a line, a woman brushing her long hair. It is amazing that he was even noticed at all. Yet his work has endured. Through revelations of timeless yet unremarkable moments, he identified the doors to the absolute.

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