Parable of Jarring Reality: Mexican Photographer Blends Aesthetics, Social Themes. (Photo Essay)

Article excerpt

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 parabola 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. …