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Mexican Death Trip

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An Homage to Don Manuel on His 100th Birthday: Manuel Alvarez Bravo

at the Art Institute, through October 6

A young girl stands with her arms resting on the railing of a balcony, a tiny patch of sun on her shoulder intensifying the effect of shadow on the rest of her figure. Her gaze down toward a balcony in the foreground seems to encompass the open courtyard between her and us, creating an implied private space, as if she were filling the air with her thoughts. But in this 1931 photograph, The Daydream, Manuel Alvarez Bravo doesn't pretend to know what those thoughts are: instead, with the greatest respect, he makes the idea of daydreaming come alive.

The work of the man generally acknowledged to be Mexico's most important photographer has seldom been seen in Chicago. While the other three photo galleries at the Art Institute are now occupied by Irving Penn's stylish nudes, Alvarez Bravo's 18 startlingly incisive photographs, seemingly seared onto the paper, are housed in the smallest room, at the rear. The large Alvarez Bravo retrospective that toured in the late 1990s didn't appear at the Art Institute, and another touring show in the 1970s also bypassed Chicago.

Born in Mexico City in 1902 ("in the place where the temples of the ancient Mexican gods must have been built," he later wrote), Alvarez Bravo is still living and reportedly still working. He once told interviewer Frederick Kaufman that, in addition to pre-Columbian art, his influences include the Mexico City cathedral and the celebration of mass there; pioneering photographer Eugene Atget, who photographed things in Paris "no other photographer would have thought interesting"; Picasso, whose work "opened the door for me"; filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who was "seeing life, seeing what's going on" when he advocated including the sound of an airplane overhead in one of his films; and Diego Rivera, who helped Alvarez Bravo recognize "photographable . . . reality" in the street. Alvarez Bravo met several of the surrealists in Mexico, and they admired his photos. But he's said that his work "is more related to Mexican art and Mexican life than to photographic traditions."

In an appreciative passage on Alvarez Bravo and Mexico, Andre Breton wrote that the "power to reconcile life and death is most certainly Mexico's greatest allure." And though Art Institute curator Colin Westerbeck says that "the real core of Alvarez Bravo's work is street photography," he writes in his book Bystander: A History of Street Photography that what sets this photographer's pictures apart is "the superstitious power of their subjects." An excellent example is Skins of Pulque: two headless pigs are leaned up against a wall in the bright sun, hooves pointing into the air, their curves bursting with sensuous life though the animals are unmistakably dead.

Even in our culture, seemingly inured to violence, Striking Worker, Assassinated (1934) is shockingly direct. Following what he thought was the sound of fireworks during a village festival, Alvarez Bravo discovered that the sounds had been gunshots and that a protesting sugar-mill worker lay dead. His ability to confront this scene might have been influenced by his experience of the Mexican Revolution as a boy, when he sometimes found corpses in the street. What's extraordinary about this image is the way the photographer allows it to speak for itself. He photographed the corpse not from overhead but from a kneeling position that respectfully meets the fallen protester halfway; seen lying on the ground on its side, the figure has a certain grandeur. But the blood spatter on the man's shirt is terrible, as is the pattern of blood on the ground, marking the moment of his death and recording the process of dying. Lines from a short poem by Octavio Paz--the most eloquent statement on Alvarez Bravo's work I've found--seem especially apt: "Manuel photographs / (gives name to) / that imperceptible tear / between the image and its name, / the sensation and the perception." A kind of gap opens up between the simple identification provided by the title and the grisly details before us, as we realize that this reality--indeed any reality--is far vaster than any name we might give it.

We see death as part of the cycle of nature in "...A Fish Called Saw" (1942), which shows a girl on a dock holding a fish at waist level. That's ordinary enough, but on an overturned boat beside her is another dead fish--a swordfish whose protruding beak asserts its power even beyond death. Conversely, the living figures in The Crouched Ones (1934) are peculiarly obscured. No one is crouching--rather the subjects are seated with their backs to us at a lunch counter. But their heads are all in deep shadow, and as in The Daydream, what's not shown creates a feeling of openness and possibility: we imagine that these people are eating, talking, laughing, but in some mysterious other realm. For a photographer who can create images so intensely physical that they seem hyperreal, giving similar life to absence is a particularly striking achievement.

One of Alvarez Bravo's themes is vision itself: through vividness--or adumbration--he makes one conscious of the viewing process. In the interview with Kaufman he quoted a paradoxical line from celebrated 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: "I have my eyes between my fingers and what I see, I touch." Many of his images are so vivid physically that they make the viewer aware of the act of seeing, as do his compositions, such as the framing of the pig carcasses in Skins of Pulque.

Other photographs are more explicitly about vision, such as X-ray Window (1940), which refers to photography itself. Hanging beside the entry to a storefront X-ray service is a grid of six X rays; another is hung just inside at a different angle. With their unique tonal values and luminosity, the X rays make it seem the bones are reaching out to the viewer, while the different perspectives render the space more complex. Here X rays testify both to the power of the photographic process and to that which it cannot capture.

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