Gaze of empathy

Different strokes

Gaze of empathy

Light and shadows: A rare portrait of  Frida Kahlo and ‘The Daydream.’

In a Sotheby’s auction last month in New York, a small photograph (measuring less than 8 inch by 10 inch) titled Los Agachados taken in the 1930s fetched an incredible $ 122500 (over Rs 55 lakh) as against the original estimate of $ 50,000 – 70000.

A few years ago, on November 13, 2007, another small photograph, El Ensueño (1931 / 24.5 x 19.3cm.) by the same photographer came up with an estimate of £40,000 - £60,000 at the Christie’s auction in London; it was finally sold for 126,500 pounds (over Rs 88 lakh)!

Los Agachados (The Crouched Ones) and El Ensueño (The Daydream) are among the many famous pictures of the prolific Mexican photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002).

The Crouched Ones is a deceptively simple image showing a group of men (with their backs to the photographer) dining at a storefront restaurant. Thanks to the dramatic lighting (which puts the heads of men under a shadow) and forceful composition (with half-opened shutter and chains linking the restaurant’s twisted-metal stools), an ordinary everyday scene is transformed into an evocative image.

The Daydream is another simple, direct picture which has a young girl standing on the balcony of her house leaning on the iron grill. 

Susan Kismaric, curator in the Department of Photography at Museum of Modern Art, New York explains the sequence of events: “Alvarez Bravo glanced up to see the girl as he sat reading Dostoevsky in the tenement where he lived, jumped up to retrieve his Graflex camera, and returned to find her in the same pose. Despite its simplicity, the picture is a rhapsody of longing, lament, or reverie. The construction of the picture puts the young woman at some distance from us, behind the barrier of the fence whose angles are repeated in the angle formed by the position of her arms… In its quietude and its sense of the solitary, the picture exists in a kind of vacuum, while it simultaneously conveys its message across time and place.”

Self taught

Born in Mexico City on February 4, 1902, Bravo came from a family of artists and writers; both his father and grandfather were patrons of photography. He left elementary school at the age of 12 in order to help his family’s finances after his father's death. Working initially at a textile factory, he later took up a job at the National General Treasury; he continued with the desk job till 1931 when he decided to devote himself to photography full time. 

Evocative: ‘Dancers’ Daughter,’ a study in curiosity by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Bravo bought his first camera in 1924 and two years later went on to win the first prize in a local competition. Although he attended evening classes in painting and music, he was largely self-taught in photography. He held his first individual exhibition of photographs at Galeria Posada, Mexico City when he was 30. A few years later he exhibited his pictures with the famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The 1930s and 1940s were Bravo’s busiest years. Among other assignments, he started photographing the works of the most important painters of his time including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

“Photographing the work of great painters taught me attitudes, the reality and technique of art,” he recalled later. “It gave me a concentration in different ways of seeing and thinking.”

In his work, Bravo explored surrealist themes of sleep, dream, and death, and unearthed mysterious elements concealed in ordinary moments and scenes. His completely straight-forward and unpretentious approach earned him the admiration of acclaimed photographers of his era like Tina Modotti, Cartier-Bresson, and Edward Weston.
If the father of surrealist movement, André Breton called him a ‘natural surrealist’, Cartier-Bresson proclaimed Bravo to be ‘the real artist’.

Rivera observed that the photography of Bravo to be Mexican by cause, form, and content. “Anguish is omnipresent and the atmosphere is supersaturated with irony,” he said.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, even dedicated to Bravo a poem which read in part: “The eye thinks, / the thought sees, / the sight touches, / the words burn.”

Awards and more

Bravo who produced sympathetic portraits of the working class and ordinary people on the street, held that his work was completely natural and spontaneous. He said that he always wanted to capture in his photos ‘life itself, natural reactions and human character - people's way of being, walking and expressing themselves.’

Among his most powerful images is Oberero En Huelga, Asesinado (Striking Worker, Assassinated) which he took while travelling with the famous Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein in 1934. The photograph shows the body of a young man lying on the floor with blood flowing from his wounded skull. 

“He was already dead when I arrived. He was the man who had started the strike. I didn’t look for an angle. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. I just had an impulse and photographed.”

During his lifetime, Bravo exhibited frequently and won prestigious awards including the Master of Photography Prize by the International Center of Photography from New York (1987); the Hugo Erfurth International Photography Award and Agfa Gevaert Prize in Leverkusen, Germany (1991); Creador Emérito by the National Council for Culture and the Arts;  the Gold Medal Award from the National Arts Club in New York; the Leica Medal of Excellence, and the Grand Cross of Merit Order in Portugal (1995).

In 1994 -95, his exhibition Evidence of the Invisible, One Hundred Photographs traveled to India (New Delhi), China and Lisbon.

Bravo believed that our relationship with reality is based on the shock of our encounter with it, and the shock of ideas against facts. Death, for him, was born with every new life. In an interview he revealed: “I cannot say that I work, exactly. It is part of my life to take photographs, to develop. It is like eating. It is a spontaneous thing.”

Lovingly referred to as the ‘Father of Mexican photography’, Bravo continued to work even in his 90s.

He celebrated his 100th birthday in February 2002 and died eight months later, on October 19, 2002.

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