PRINT April 1976

The Indigenous Vision of Manuel Alvaraz Bravo

Popular Art is the art of the People.
A popular painter is an artisan who, as in the Middle Ages, remains anonymous. His work needs no advertisement, as it is done for the people around him. The more pretentious artist craves to become famous, and it is characteristic of his work that it is bought for the name rather than for the work—a name that is built up by propaganda.

Before the Conquest all art was of the people, and popular art has never ceased to exist in Mexico. The art called Popular is quite fugitive in character, of sensitive and personal quality, with less of the impersonal and intellectual characteristics that are the essence of the art of the schools. It is the work of talent nourished by personal experience and by that of the community—rather than being taken from the experiences of other painters in other times and other cultures, which forms the intellectual chain of non popular art.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, from Painted Walls of Mexico1

THE RESONANCE OF CREDO is unmistakable. Coming from a photographer, these words do not proclaim a personal achievement, but they do indicate his aspirations for photography. Yet Manuel Alvarez Bravo, still little known outside his native country and the professional world of photography, has in the past half-century forged a body of work precisely to meet such standards: fugitive, sensitive, personal, nourished by experience, deeply rooted in his culture and his people.

For an imagemaker whose work has been known to and admired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Diego Rivera, and André Breton, remaining obscure after 50 years of work in his chosen medium is no mean feat. One cannot help but suspect that to some extent this is self-imposed, born of a “fugitive” or reticent nature and a consistent avoidance of personal publicity. Insofar as it appears to be voluntary, I find myself loathe to violate that privacy.

Yet there are other factors to consider. One of these is his remarkable absence from all the standard reference works on photographic history (except for Peter Pollack’s Picture History of Photography, wherein he is mentioned only in passing and misindexed as “Alvarez-Bruno”).2 Some attention seems in order, if only to acknowledge what has been achieved. Additionally, his work assumes that photography is an explicitly demotic visual language, to whose fullest progressive range he is committed.

This is not to be understood as “socialist realism” in any sense. Alvarez Bravo’s imagery does not deal in stereotypes; his awareness of and response to the ethos of Mexican culture is far too complex and multi-leveled to permit such oversimplification. There is a valorization of people on the lower social strata which is inherent in the persistent address of Bravo’s vision to their experience, and implicit in his uninterest in the middle and upper classes. Certainly this is intentional, and emblematic of his politics. But the work is free of slogans and generalities. Viewers of photographs may tend to generalize from them—sometimes at the photographer’s instigation, often independently, and always at their own risk. But one of photography’s unique functions is to describe particulars. That aspect of the medium is essential to Alvarez Bravo, for he uses photography as a probe, an incisive tool for uncovering the heart of a culture embodied in the individual people who form its base.

In referring to photography as a demotic language, then, I am not suggesting the establishment of some simplified, standardized politico-visual code and its imposition on all those who would communicate through photographs. Put it this way: there are many dialects at the disposal of the photographer; his/her choice thereof is also a choice of audience. With Alvarez Bravo, we have someone who—to extend the linguistic analogy—is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, but chooses the latter to convey his messages.

That is an illuminating and instructive stance for a photographer to adopt. It merits scrutiny at this juncture because the definition of photography is currently being reshaped by a variety of cultural forces. One of those forces is the contemporary art world, whose relationship to photography at present might best be described as carpetbagging. Something may be learned by assessing the art world’s dominant theory, an essentially Mandarin formalism, in light of an approach to photography which is integral to that medium and at the same time directly contradicts the postulate that “in the last analysis the main subject matter of art is art.”

That contradiction is quite explicit in the statement from Alvarez Bravo quoted at the beginning of this essay. We are face to face, not with a naif artist, but with an intentionally indigenous vision.

The distinction is significant. Like his craftsmanship, his sophistication conceals itself. Yet it is apparent—from images such as Somewhat Gay and Graceful and Good Reputation Sleeping—that he is adept in both the responsive mode, as in Cartier-Bresson, and the directorial modes of photography, as in Meatyard. Other images (The Crouched Ones, And By Night It Moaned, Absent Portrait, for example) indicate his grasp of the medium’s translative capacities—the exploitable differences between what is in front of the lens and what the combination of camera and film will or can be made to register. His sense of formal structure excited Edward Weston, most especially his Boy Urinating. His recognition of the camera’s versatility as a visual means for creating and describing symbolic relationships can be seen in photograph after photograph: Sympathetic Nervous System, Ladder of Ladders, The Sign, Another Sign. In works such as his Optic Parable he demonstrates that he is fluent enough to create elegant, intricate puns—which James Joyce termed the highest form of language.

In short, his imagery displays highly conscious formal underpinnings, and he shows tectonic kinship with other workers in his medium. There are connections with Aaron Siskind and Brassai to be found in his studies of walls. Weston, with whom he corresponded at Tina Modotti’s instigation, surely affected him. He shares Clarence John Laughlin’s fascination with graveyards. Paul Strand compared him to Eugene Atget in his love of place; the Czechoslovakian surrealist Josef Sudek is another parallel in that regard. To this list I would feel impelled to add Robert Doisneau, Brassai again (though from a different angle), and most of all André Kertesz: all three have in common with Alvarez Bravo a similar responsiveness to nuances of human gesture and interaction.

Aside from his portraiture, Alvarez Bravo’s images of people are quite unlike the posed, stylized studies of a Bruce Davidson or a Paul Strand. Rather, they are swift, sharp glimpses of the physical manifestations of personal identity, outlined with clarity and without cynicism. Though sometimes ambiguous, as such manifestations can be, their duality is not exaggerated by the photographer. Like Doisneau, Brassai and Kertesz, Alvarez Bravo is able to make the viewer feel fully present at events by his attunement to other people’s rhythms. Himself falling in step with the tempos of their lives in the process of making his images, he thereby allows the viewer to stand awhile in someone else’s shoes, observant but unobserved. His concentration is on those instants when human beings—usually alone or in small groups—reveal through their bodies something distinctive about their relationship to the earth, to others, or to themselves.

Alvarez Bravo is anything but unaware of art forms outside his own. He is an authority on Mexican mural art (which he has photographed officially for many years). His peers are the modern masters, Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros, etc., who often posed for him. His work has long been known to the Surrealists, and he has surely learned from them in turn. (Witness his use of titles that do not merely reiterate the image contents but instead specify and/or extend their metaphorical implications.)

Yet the major force which has shaped his imagery has not been art, but culture. The themes around which his work revolves are quintessentially Mexican, motifs so traditional as to be more unavoidable than chosen. What are his predilections? Dogs and dreams, ladders and walls, birds, people, earth and death.

It is difficult, given a body of work as extensive and interrelated as Alvarez Bravo’s, to single out individual images for examination. Ideally, one should be able to refer the reader to a wide, representative cross-section. At this point, however, that is unfeasible; there is only one monograph on his work in print,3 containing a scant 33 reproductions, published to accompany a small exhibition surveying his enormous output which toured this country briefly in 1971. A 1975 exhibition at the Witkin Gallery in New York City contained a selection of new work along with more familiar images, but was unstructured and (through no fault of the gallery’s, surely) hardly exhaustive. Let me, then, discuss a few images for what they might suggest of the whole.

I begin with one of a man lying face upward on the earth. From the sheer volume of blood which has poured out of his mouth and nose to spatter his clothing, pool under his head and soak into the soil, I would assume that he is dead. However, the small sharp gleam of light in the corner of his left eye suggests in a most disconcerting way that his life continues. The cause of death is not apparent; it may have been external violence or internal hemorrhage. He seems at rest; his body is stretched out, his expression is not fearful or contorted. The photograph brings the viewer close to him, close enough to study his profile and note the details of his clothing—but not so close as to cut him off above the groin or to amputate his slightly curled left hand.

Aside from the man himself, his blood, and the earth, there are no other “contents” in the image, except for some dim folds of cloth in the background and the hint of another’s hand or foot in the upper left corner. Instead of making his image at more of a distance (thus distancing the viewer equally from the event), or portraying the body in relation to other people at the scene (giving it more of a public quality), or looking down from above the body (with the overtones of superiority/triumph that would add), the photographer’s choice of position places the viewer at the dead. man’s left side, the side closest to his heart, inches from his hand, crouching or kneeling—the place of a doctor, a friend or relative, a mourner.

I have always felt a powerful upward thrust in this image, as though the prone body were on the verge of rising horizontally from the ground. With the image turned on its side so that his head is at the top, the man seems quite alive and intent, his body rushing forward into space like Mercury’s. Perhaps this response has to do with the counterpoised diagonals of the image’s structure, or with the almost aerodynamic flow of his hair and blood.

So, by itself, the image suggests the unexpected death of a seemingly average young man, a death accepted with a certain equanimity; it indicates the cyclical inevitability of the body’s return to the dust by depicting that quite literally; it accepts that cycle of the flesh stoically. Yet the vitality of the figure and of the image itself implies some transcendence of the spirit. By itself, we might think of this image as a memorial.

But the image has a title: Obrero en Huelga, Asesinado (Striking Worker, Assassinated), 1934. The title is strictly—and, for Alvarez Bravo, rigorously—informational. The information it offers us could not be deduced from the image. We might have guessed that the man was a worker; we could not have known that he was on strike, nor surely that the cause of his death was political, not accidental. Yet this title does not contradict the impression of the image; instead, it elaborates it by providing the context in which to ponder this particular death, a context in which the symbology of the image echoes, reverberates, expands. From the combination of the two—the visual data in the image, the verbal data of the caption—we are free to write out our own equations.

This is only one of many images by Alvarez Bravo in which death is the central issue. His work is full of tombs, cemeteries, coffins, the cadavers and skeletons of various creatures, and the religious/ceremonial artifacts with which mortality is celebrated in Mexico.

If mortality—seen as the return to dust—is central to Alvarez Bravo’s art, then this image is surely the epicenter, the one which brings him (and us) closest to the moment of transition from life to death. From it radiates outward much of his imagery: the diverse visions of death; people and animals lying on the ground, drawing sustenance from their soil in order to nourish it in turn; people laboring on or in the dirt, always in contact with it.

There is no escape from that connection offered by the photographer. Walls pretend to divide and control the earth, but they continually crumble, reminding us of their earthy origin, or—as in Mr. Municipal President, 1947, diminish the human protagonist. Ladders offer a way of climbing, but only for a time: they are always connected to the earth, often at more than one end, as is indicated in the ironic Ladder of Ladders, 1931, in which a ladder leads upward to a child-sized coffin on a shelf. Only birds get to leave the earth, and even they are eventually snared by death (as in Twilight Bird Swayed by the Wind, 1932), brought down at last.

If there is no escape, there is at least one release: dreaming. It is another recurrent motif in Alvarez Bravo’s work: Dreams Are For Believing (Quevedo), 1968, Dogs Bark While Sleeping, 1966, Good Reputation Sleeping, 1938, The Nest, 1954, are a few of the images in which if figures. But we might use The Dreamer, 19314 as an exemplification, if only because it dovetails so precisely with Striking Worker, Assassinated.

In this image also a man lies face upward on the earth. There is grass around his head and feet, but he appears to be on top of a ledge, or perhaps the uppermost of several stone steps. He is lying on his right side. In many ways he resembles the striking worker: for if he is unshaven and poor, he is also at rest, facing the sky, hair flowing back to touch the ground. They even look somewhat alike: about the same age and size.

Through the camera we are positioned on the same level as the dreamer—or, rather, he being at our eye level, somewhat below him. We are also somewhat further back from him than we were from the worker; the difference is no more than a foot or two, but it is enough to show him full length and also enough to insulate his reverie from the intrusion of camera and photographer.

Unlike the worker, who stares with open eyes into a harsh, flat light, the dreamer’s eyes are closed and brushed, like much of his body, with a gentle, mellow glow of sun. Perhaps it warms him enough to make him dream of making love; perhaps that is why his left hand (again, unlike the worker’s) is tucked between his closed legs, pressed against his sex. It is that possibility, at least, which Alvarez Bravo asks us to consider.

So they are different, the worker and the dreamer; and yet they are alike. I think it is important to recognize that Alvarez Bravo acknowledges both these realities in his work. Each person he portrays is an individual, and the photographer gives to each one his or her personal identity through his attunement to the subtleties of gesture, posture, and expression. Yet they resemble each other, bound together by their indigence and their share in an ancient culture.

The photographer’s sense of the complexity of this issue is summed up in another image. It portrays two men at work on a beach. They stand face to face, the one on the left reaching for a basket of sand on the head of the other. Were it not for that difference in gesture, they could be mirror images of each other: their hats, their short pants, their bodies, their stances are identical. One can imagine them as twin brothers, or children who grew up together as friends in the same community, under the same circumstances, and who have grown so like each other from being polished to an identical smoothness by the same shared experiences. It seems unlikely that they could come to differ radically from each other, that their lives could ever change. Yet they enact this eternal Sisyphean ritual with the assurance and grace of solo dancers. In his title, Alvarez Bravo names them Los Mismos––The Same.

Immersed in culture, yet devoid of sentimentality, Alvarez Bravo requires that his work have emotional and intellectual accessibility as well as formal logic, continuity and growth. His imagery may be fugitive, but it is not secretive.5 Though he speaks in the vernacular with eloquence, his work makes no plea, sounds no alarms over transient plights, and polemicizes no issues. One cannot imagine him being so simplistic and humorless as to romanticize the Mexican people by analogizing them with the suffering Christ, as Paul Strand did in The Mexican Portfolio. Perhaps only an American—from a culture merely four centuries old, built on stolen land—could be so naively ethnocentric.

The people of Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s images bear as their birthright (often their only one) the knowledge that they will feed their native land with their toil and their flesh as their ancestors have done back into prehistory.6 That is their burden, and their badge. Despite what economics may indicate, no matter what politicians and businessmen and the military may enforce, the land—and the culture—is theirs. Death is the equalizer.

But life is a dream.

A. D. Coleman, formerly a columnist on photography for the New York Times and the Village Voice, is now associate editor of Camera 35.



1. Painted Walls of Mexico: From Prehistoric Times until Today, text by Emily Edwards; photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo; foreword by Jean Chariot, Austin and London, 1966, p. 145.

2. Peter Pollack, The Picture History of Photography: from the earliest beginnings to the present day, New York, 1969, pp. 564, 702.

3. Fred R. Parker, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, California, 1971. The only other extensive monograph on his work, generally unavailable at this point, is: Manuel Alvarez Bravo: fotografias 1928–1968; Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico, D.F.: Comité Organizador de Los Juegos de Las XIX Olimpiada, 1968. Text by Juan Garcia Ponce. Exhibition catalogue with 86 reproductions.

4. This particular image has a historical forebear in O. J. Rejlander’s The Bachelor’s Dream, and at least one offspring in the third image from the last in Ralph Gibson’s Deja-Vu.

5. It seems pertinent to note, in this regard, that his style as a printmaker is neither bravura nor neutral. His prints as objects are carefully crafted, unassuming, and comfortable to be around. His images are never so dependent on the silver print as a vehicle that their poetry is lost in the translation into the more easily disseminated form of halftone reproductions.

6. Alvarez Bravo’s own connection with the same land pervades his images. He says of himself, “I was born in the city of Mexico, behind the Cathedral, in the place where the temples of the ancient Mexican gods must have been built, February fourth, 1902.” (In Parker, p. 48.)