Manuel Álvarez Bravo

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Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, 'Portrait of the Eternal', 1935
Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo is widely considered to be the most important photographer in the history of Latin American photography. Born in Mexico City on 4 February 1902, he left school at the age of 12 in order to help support his family after his father’s sudden death. Álvarez Bravo began working for the magazine, Mexican Folkways, where he met editor and fellow photographer, Tina Modotti, who introduced him to the lively community of artists and intellectuals in Mexico City. When Modotti was deported from Mexico in 1930, Álvarez Bravo became the magazine’s editor. He had his first solo exhibition in 1932.

Whilst Álvarez Bravo’s early work in the 1920s shows the influence of Edward Weston in its concentration on abstract still lifes, his focus changed in the 1930s to the urban landscape of Mexico City. In the late 30s Álvarez Bravo became increasingly involved with the Surrealists and in 1939 André Breton used his photograph The Good Reputation Sleeping (1939) for the cover of an exhibition catalogue. The photograph has since become one of Álvarez Bravo’s best known images.

Álvarez Bravo became well known for his surrealistic photographs of people and places of Mexico City. He was a key figure in the cultural movement following the Mexican Revolution that became known as the Mexican Renaissance and photographed the work of Mexican mural painters including Diego Rivera. Álvarez Bravo’s work addressed the huge cultural and social changes that took places in Mexico after the revolution, documenting both towns and countryside with a particular emphasis on the depiction of labour. Much of his iconography involves Mexican folklore and myth, especially the rituals surrounding the Day of the Dead festival. Álvarez Bravo shows Isabel Villaseñor, an artist, poet, singer and icon of Mexico’s post-revolutionary period, peering into a small mirror. Whilst her long flowing hair is a symbol of idealised Mexican feminine beauty and intellect, the mirror hints at vanity and draws attention to the ephemerality of youth and beauty. The passing of time and death are common themes in Álvarez Bravo’s work, frequently tied to reverence for the dead in Mexican culture. The photograph seeks to show death to be a paradoxically eternal phenomenon.

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