"Optical Parables," the traveling Manuel Alvarez Bravo retrospective currently at the Walker, borrows its name from one of the late photographer's most celebrated streetscapes--an optician's storefront in Mexico City. In the picture, the store's windows and signs are caught as though in the casual flash of a harried pedestrian's glance. But take another look, and you'll notice that the image is, in fact, printed in reverse. In the instant before your eye recognizes the inversion, the ordinary scene seems to take on the floating dislocation of a dream. That happy little shiver of visual dissonance reverberates throughout "Optical Parables": Here is an artist who never once took the art of seeing for granted.
"Optical Parables" was organized before Alvarez Bravo's death last month at age 100, and, perhaps as a result, it doesn't bear the somber baggage of a memorial. The presiding spirit in these small photos, with their desolate settings and glassy, diffuse sunlight, is, rather, one of meditative calm. You can almost feel the artist at your shoulder as a genial guide, whispering, "Look closely. The world is also a dream."
Though Alvarez Bravo's work covered the waterfront, from formal nude studies to abstractions and landscapes, he was often--albeit not very accurately, as the retrospective makes clear--identified with surrealism. The association is understandable, though, since one of his most iconic images, the triptych "The Good Reputation Sleeping," was actually produced at the request of André Breton for the cover of a surrealist exhibition catalog. For the commission, Alvarez Bravo photographed a supine nude model with bandages wrapped around her hips so as to expose her pubic mound. The image seems to stray toward the misogyny for which surrealists are often chided. But Alvarez was too refined to be a fetishist: The repetition of the image, underlining the artificiality of the scene, grounds its erotic current. Even the cacti scattered around the model point to the wink-and-nod playfulness of the image: The abrojo plants--possibly a visual pun on the phrase eyes wide open--look as though they'd make an awfully formidable chastity belt in a pinch.
His forays into surrealism and abstraction notwithstanding, many of Alvarez Bravo's most enduring images are stark, heavily symbolic tableaux captured near his Mexico City studio. In a 1943 letter to an American curator, Alvarez Bravo wrote that he was born "behind the cathedral, in the place where the temples of ancient Mexican gods must have been built," and the tension between Mexico's pre-colonial past and uncertain future informs his vision of the urban landscape. In the well-known 1934 image "The Crouched Ones," for instance, a group of campesinos is shown sitting at a lunch counter. The chains that bind their chairs together seem symbolic of their toil, while the shadow that cuts them sharply off at the shoulders suggests the anonymity of the urban worker.
The image resonates politically--Alvarez Bravo came of age in the shadow of Mexico's cataclysmic revolution (1910-1921). But unlike contemporaries such as Diego Rivera and Tina Modotti (who ceded her photo equipment to Alvarez Bravo after she was expelled from Mexico for Communist agitation), Alvarez Bravo is less explicit in his political leanings. His generous eye, which surveyed poverty, decay, and natural beauty with the same measured patience, seemed to embody the revolution's socialist idealism. In this, at least, those frequent comparisons to roaming documentarian Eugène Atget seem appropriate: As Atget sought to document the lonely tangle of turn-of-the-century Paris, Alvarez Bravo seemed to breathe easiest in Mexico City's atmosphere of lyric melancholy.
Yet it's also interesting to compare an Alvarez Bravo image like "The Third Fall"--of a transient, asleep or possibly dead, in the gutter--with Walker Evans's famous picture of the sleeping Squeekie Burroughs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Whereas Evans is preoccupied with the tension between recording the rough texture of rural life and imbuing it with a phony heroic meaning, Alvarez Bravo seems comfortable treating this curled figure with a threadbare suit as an archetype of misery. Unlike Evans or Atget, Alvarez Bravo kept cheerful company with metaphor and ambiguity.
That Alvarez Bravo was so resolutely not a photojournalist makes the retrospective's most powerful image, "Striking Worker Murdered," all the more startling. The circumstances of the shot are rightly famous: In 1934, while scouting locations in Tehuantepec for filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Alvarez Bravo heard what he assumed was the crackle of fireworks. Expecting to find a rural village celebration, he stumbled instead upon a sugar-mill strike, where, minutes earlier, one of the strikers had been shot dead. With the two frames remaining in his camera, he photographed the body. As the English title's present-tense urgency suggests, the resulting picture aspires to the caught-on-the-fly immediacy of photojournalism. We see the man's lifeblood still soaking into the dust. His eyes remain open, clouded with the beatific calm of a religious icon.
Upon closer viewing, though, the image turns out to be rigorously composed. The body is photographed at a low angle, while the man's belt and outstretched arm form a triangle that echoes the cloth pattern of a flag behind him. The absence of background clutter gives the picture an archetypal punch. Stripped of context and political hectoring, the photo becomes a meditation on the mystery of death itself. That Alvarez Bravo could coax such universal meaning out of spastic violence is the root of his art. For him, composition was not an operation of the mind, but rather an intuitive function of the eye.
It's nice to imagine that the artist faced his own end with the same cold, clear gaze.