Past Exhibitions

Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographs and The Spirit of Mexico

Exhibition Through February 16, 2003

To celebrate the centennial year of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Mexico's foremost photographer, the Orange County Museum of Art presented two complementary exhibitions. Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographs, curated by Victor Zamudio-Taylor, spanned almost sixty years of Alvarez Bravo's career, revealing the breadth of the photographer's thematic and stylistic concerns. The Spirit of Mexico, organized by OCMA Curator of Collections Sarah Vure, explored the allure of Mexico - its people, culture, and light - for photographers working in the modernist tradition. Together they paid tribute to Alvarez Bravo and his vision.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographs featured works by Alvarez Bravo drawn from a collection he formed under the patronage of Televisa, the largest Spanish-language media conglomerate. Now housed at the Casa Lamm Cultural Center in Mexico City, this photography collection, considered one of the most prominent in Latin America, is unique in its focus on the history of the medium and its practice in Mexico. In 1980 the art collector and film producer Jacques Gelman and media tycoon Emilio Arraga Milmo enlisted Alvarez Bravo to choose works representing a broad range of techniques, themes, and photographers for a projected museum of photography in Mexico. Until recently, the collection had been rarely exhibited, and this is its first presentation in the United States.

Born and educated in Mexico City, Alvarez Bravo became interested in photography in 1922, and his earliest works are emblematic of the formal concerns that would occupy him throughout his career. Like many photographers from the 1920s on, he shifted from a pictorialist approach to a modernist aesthetic that valued purity, focus and economy of form, and the dictum of doing what only photography can do, rather than imitating other media. His encounter with Tina Modotti in 1927 was a turning point for Alvarez Bravo. The passionate artist, bohemian, and political activist recognized his talent early on and urged him to continue working. Under Modotti's and Edward Weston's influence, Alvarez Bravo began to photograph objects from very close up to emphasize the interplay of geometric forms; this approach is poetic insofar as it leaves much open to the viewer, relying on the evocative potential of simpler forms. 

In 1930 Alvarez Bravo became photographer for Mexican Folkways, an important journal that fostered U.S.- Mexico cultural links and served as a platform for the research, promotion, and support of both modern Mexican art and the popular arts of indigenous cultures. In addition to illustrating articles about the arts, his photographs also documented the diverse ethnic groups and leading cultural figures of Mexico. Increasingly Alvarez Bravo focused his camera on the life and people of his native land. His distinctive body of work and the photography collection he formed are part of the ongoing endeavor to affirm Mexico's ancient heritage, contemporary culture, and ethnographic expressions. 

Comprised of photographs from California collections, The Spirit of Mexico examined Mexican images during the postrevolutionary period of the 1920s and 1930s, when Mexico's cultural vitality drew an international array of artists and intellectuals including Modotti, Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Equally, it looked at Alvarez Bravo's enduring influence on Mexican photography. For Weston, Mexico provided new subjects and artistic inspiration. Between 1923 and 1926, far from the demands of the conventional portrait studio he operated in California, he made the final transition to modernist photography with compositions that integrate realism and abstraction, and motifs that reflect a fascination with Mexican popular arts. The photographs of younger artists such as Flor Garduo, who was Alvarez Bravo's assistant in 1979, carry on his legacy. Gardu's images of the rural peoples of Latin America are emblematic portrayals of life, ritual, and death. The powerfully dramatic photographs in this exhibition represent urban and rural realities, internal and external perceptions, and ultimately emphasize the importance of cross-cultural experiences.



Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Optical Parable, 1933; gelatin-silver print, 6 x 9 9/16 inches; Collection of Susan and Gene Spiritus.



Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographs and The Spirit of Mexico were made possible by the generous support of MetLife Foundation and Jean and Tim Weiss.