Popularly called “the father of Mexican photography,” he began almost by chance. Despite his background as a student of fine art, later experience as an assistant cinematographer with Eisenstein, and mentoring by Hugo Brehme and Tina Modotti, he always declared himself an autodidact. Nonetheless, he lectured in photography at San Carlos University from 1929, three years before he became a photographer. Always preferring to work in his home country, he was little known abroad before the 1970s. Even then, his reputation was as a photographer’s photographer, accessible primarily to an inner circle able to penetrate his vaunted sense of “mystery” and “darkness.”
In fact, these characteristics were more to do with subject matter and style than with an innate vision. Alvarez Bravo captured little mystery in his images of everyday life, even including those of the great volcanoes of the Valley of Mexico. And he did not lack international connections: friendship with Modotti, an early spread in the magazine “Mexican Folkways;” and, in 1938, Andre Breton’s choice of one of his prints for the cover of the Surrealist exhibition catalogue in Paris. By this time he had also met Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and exhibited with them and Walker Evans at Julien Levy’s New York Gallery in 1935.
Having grown up in the streets during the revolution, his fascination with ordinary lives appears throughout his oeuvre. An abundance of images testifies to this: from the boy sweeping with a twig besom, apparently lifted into a balletic pose, to the early shot of a girl on the staircase at his parents tenement in 1931. Alvarez Bravo’s reputation for mystery seems at variance with his naturally lit, unmanipulated, and largely unposed images. But Mexico is a land of contrasts: Alvarez Bravo’s marketers sheltering from the heat under a tented rug; or his diners, shaded so that their heads vanish beneath a metal blind at a roadside bar; even his plantation workers, semi-invisible beneath palm fronds – all imply that the hidden is as important as the seen. Death is another theme. From the 1970s, Alvarez Bravo’s work was extensively exhibited in the USA and Europe, and he received numerous honors.