In this, the centennial year of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, exhibitions of his work have filled major museums throughout Mexico and beyond. The Mexican Postal Service issued a new stamp to commemorate the life of the master photographer. At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the audience joined the National Symphony Orchestra in serenading him, singing "Las Mananitas" in honor of his one hundredth birthday. At last, the accolades match the accomplishment. "Every photograph by Don Manuel is an anniversary that demands a celebration," declared Mexican writer and cultural critic Carlos Monsivais.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo is the last of a generation of artists who put Mexico on the map, culturally speaking, during the years following the Mexican Revolution. This was the era of modernists like artist Rufino Tamayo, architect Luis Barragan, and poet Octavio Paz, with whom Alvarez Bravo would later collaborate. Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were emblazoning walls with indigenous symbols and revolutionary themes. "It was a very fertile period in Mexican history," says Mikka Gee Conway, co-curator of a recent Alvarez Bravo exhibition at Los Angeles's J. Paul Getty Museum. "As the country was being reconstructed, there was a utopian idea that artists and intellectuals could re-create Mexican society."
Compared with the muralists, Alvarez Bravo's rise to prominence followed a gentler arc. Perhaps it was the nature of his art--understated and subtle as opposed to the muralists' bold pronouncements--that veiled his importance for a time. "His work as a whole has a quiet substance," says Francesco Siqueiros, editor of El Nopal Press. "You actually have to stop and look at his work in a quiet way." Then, too, Alvarez Bravo never embraced the strident revolutionary politics of the muralists, preferring to remain above the fray. "Many people considered him apolitical. I think he was reacting to the aspect of politics that was very constrained propaganda," says Siqueiros, who also participated in the Getty exhibition. "But he had a strong social consciousness. He was interested in understanding the people as opposed to taking positions."
The photographer Paul Strand once observed that "Manuel Alvarez Bravo's work is rooted firmly in his love and compassionate understanding of his own country, its people, their problems, and their needs.... He wishes to speak with warmth about Mexico as Atget spoke about Paris."
Indeed, Alvarez Bravo credits Eugene Atget with exerting an early influence on his photography. Just as Atget captured the quotidian small vignettes of Paris, Alvarez Bravo chronicled unheralded ordinary people participating in everyday life in his native Mexico.
One such print, from the 1950s, shows a boy and Iris mother in an intimate moment. Viewed from the back, they sit on a curb sharing lunch and conversation. The boy's elbow rests on his shoeshine box. Alvarez Bravo titles the work The Mother of the Shoeshine Boy and the Shoeshine Boy. As in all such photographs, Alvarez Bravo invests his subjects with a sense of dignity and timelessness.
Rose Shoshana, of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California, underscores another characteristic of his art that renders it timeless:
"Something quite ordinary that you pass a hundred times a day--suddenly he brings it to us in a new way," she says, citing photographs of displays in a market place such as Set Trap and his Paper Game series. "He takes rolls of old accounting paper and suddenly they become incredible sculptural pieces."
The accounting paper harks back to the days when Alvarez Bravo worked as an accountant, making use of another talent, his prodigious math skills. The day job was necessitated by the family's reduced circumstances after his father died when Alvarez Bravo was barely in his teens. But the youth educated himself--studying a book of Picasso's paintings, visiting museums, subscribing to photography publications, taking night courses in painting, music, and literature, and generally immersing himself in the arts--all of which have enriched his life and his work. …