Born February 4, 1902, in Mexico City, Mexico; died of natural causes, October 19, 2002, in Mexico City, Mexico. Photographer. Manuel Alvarez Bravo's photographs represented the height of Mexican photography during the 1930s and '40s. One of the leading surrealist artists on the North American continent, his work was also praised for its realism because of its intense focus on the everyday lives of Mexico's diverse population.
The son of a high school teacher, Alvarez Bravo left school by the age of 13 and began work in a government office. For a short time, he studied music and painting at the National Academy of Fine Arts. Working as a clerk to support himself, Alvarez Bravo continued to show an interest in art. He learned basic photography from a family friend who had given him a camera. Eventually he bought his own camera and was lucky enough to receive training from some of Europe's finest photographers.
Alvarez Bravo learned European photographic techniques from Hugo Brehme, whom Alvarez Bravo met when he was 21. Brehme also introduced Alvarez Bravo to Wilhelm Kahlo, who, like Brehme, was another German–born photographer making his home in Mexico. Kahlo was the father of the famous painter Frida Kahlo who—along with muralist Diego Rivera—strongly influenced Mexican art during the early post–Revolutionary years.
Alvarez Bravo continued to meet other photographers who had a great influence on him. In particular, the Italian photographer Tina Modotti bolstered Alvarez Bravo's career. As principal photographer for Mexican Folkways, she helped get his work published in the magazine. Mexican Folkways focused on Mexican popular art and customs as well as showcasing the muralists of the time. When Modotti was deported from Mexico in 1930 for her political beliefs, Alvarez Bravo took over her duties.
Alvarez Bravo began exhibiting his works in the mid–1920s. In 1926, he won an award for regional photography at an exhibition. An introduction to American photographer Edward Weston (who was Modotti's beau at the time), led to an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum with Weston, along with Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange. His first one–man exhibition came in 1932 in Mexico City. Soon afterward he met the American photographer Paul Strand and French portraitist Henri Cartier–Bresson. Alvarez Bravo exhibited with Cartier–Bresson in 1934 at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. In 1935, the two exhibited again, along with Walker Evans, in New York.
In the 1930s, Alvarez Bravo began a teaching career that lasted for more than 30 years. He taught at various schools including the San Carlos Academy, the Center of Cinematographic Studies of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the Central School of Art. His unusual teaching style combined with his anonymity caused many students to eschew his classes. When most students were wanting to study filmmaking, Alvarez Bravo was taking them out to the countryside, having them set up cameras, and then waiting for something to happen.
Alvarez Bravo's work grew from many influences. As a child growing up during the Mexican revolution, he encountered death almost daily. Mexico had lost more than a million people in the conflict, and many bodies lay decomposing in the countryside where he played. The influence of his international contemporaries led to the creation of photographs that were filled with symbolism. His work was also guided by his association with Mexico's left–wing intellectual and political community.
Early in his career Alvarez Bravo sought out the intimate details of daily life in Mexico City. Photographs like The Crouched Ones, which shows workers sitting at a counter with their backs to the camera, is extraordinary because the lighting and composition make them appear decapitated as well as chained to their chairs.
As he matured, Alvarez Bravo became interested in creating meaning, however ambivalent, and began setting up scenes to be photographed. One of his most famous photographs made in this fashion is The Good Reputation Sleeping. The photograph was commissioned by French surrealist André Breton for the cover of his catalogue of the surrealist exhibition in Mexico City. In the photograph, a woman lies nude on a sidewalk, bandages are wrapped about her, and cacti are placed around her body.
In the 1940s, Alvarez Bravo began to focus on the Mexican landscape using wide–angle cameras. Praised from the beginning for his ability to link the past and the present in his work, these later photographs exemplified this strength in his work. His 1957 print Kiln Two shows two brick–making ovens with smoke pouring out their pointed tops. The photo harks back to Mexico's ancient history by referencing Mayan temples while also representing the effect of industrialization on the country.
Late in his life Alvarez Bravo found it hard to travel. He continued to photograph, but he worked primarily in his studio or his backyard photographing nudes as well as objects that were sent to him from colleagues, friends, and admirers. Although Alvarez Bravo enjoyed his work and did not complain, Jonathan Kandell of the New York Times reported that Alvarez Bravo said, "But the countryside, the daily life of the street is so much richer than doing nudes."
Despite having exhibited in the United States with some of its top photographers during the '20s and '30s, Alvarez Bravo eventually became unknown to many. In 1971, he was reintroduced to the United States and a wider audience when the Norton Simon Museum (at that time called the Pasadena Art Museum) launched a retrospective. The retrospective eventually traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alvarez Bravo was honored again more than 30 years later on his 100th birthday with exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum as well as other American museums
Alvarez Bravo married Lola Martinez de Anda in 1925, and divorced her in 1934. He then married and later divorced Doris Heyden. His widow is Colette Urbajtel whom he married in 1962. Alvarez Bravo died on October 19, 2002, at the age of 100. He is survived by his wife and five children. Alvarez Bravo was a leader in Mexico's artistic renaissance; his work focused on specifically Mexican subjects. Weston Naef, a curator for the J. Paul Getty Museum told the New York Times, "For Alvarez Bravo almost all of his greatest pictures were made within 100 miles of his home.… [He was] completely committed to a body of work that had its grounding in the soil from which he came."
Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2002, p. B9; New York Times, October 21, 2002, p. A20; Times (London), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (October 25, 2002); Washington Post, October 22, 2002, p. B6.
— Eve M. B. Hermann