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The Photography of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

This fall, The Ringling will present an exhibition of work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated photographers: Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002).

Find out more about the exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Specters and Parables, From the Stanton B and Nancy W Kaplan Collection, on view December 8, 2019 through March 20, 2020.

Bravo is recognized as the first modern fine art photographer in Mexico, but his unique visual legacy has intrigued viewers and inspired other artists around the world. Although his work was inflected by avant-garde modernism of the 1920s and 30s, his practice always remained grounded in the complexities of Mexican society. This exhibition, curated from the collection of Stanton B and Nancy W Kaplan, includes work spanning throughout Bravo’s life; some photographs often reproduced and quite well-known, others less familiar, thus allowing us to see the range of Bravo’s personal style as he explored the poetics of the everyday.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), Parábola optica (Optical parable), 1931; printed 1970s. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), Parábola optica (Optical parable), 1931; printed 1970s. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Bravo’s life and early career were shaped by some of the most tumultuous and formative eras of his country’s history. His adolescence was framed by the chaos of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and he bore witness to the bloodshed firsthand as political factions vied for the destiny of the nation. After the Revolution the country rebuilt itself as a modern, democratic republic set on social and economic reform. Bravo’s artistic career emerged during the Mexican Renaissance, when art and culture flourished under government sponsorship, as the state sought to promote unity after the years of turmoil through the creation of a modern national identity. Among Bravo’s artistic circle in this productive era were legendary artists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991).

Like many of the artists of his era, Bravo was influenced by indigenismo—the embrace of the country’s indigenous people and culture as positive attributes of its identity. Bravo was attuned to and inspired by conversations about radical new modernist approaches to photography in the US and Europe, as practiced by Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Paul Strand (1890-1976), a lifelong friend of Bravo’s, who advocated for a “straight” photography that celebrated the camera’s unique way of framing detail and intensifying form.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), El ensueño (The daydream)), 1931; printed 1974. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), El ensueño (The daydream)), 1931; printed 1974. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

In one of his classic works, El ensueño (The daydream) (1931), a pensive young woman touched by a splash of otherworldly light, looks down unto a scene we are invited to imagine. Bravo snapped the photograph when he noticed the youth while he was waiting outside his family home. Typical of his approach, he has elevated a mundane moment into the register of a shared human experience.

Although Bravo also composed some of his images in the studio, many of his most memorable images were created in the streets. Much like his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) whom he met in Mexico in 1934, Bravo had a knack for transforming the quotidian into the profound. Often, as in Parábola optica (Optical parable) (1931), he gave his works cryptic, poet titles, provoking us to wild interpretive possibilities. In his compositions, Bravo often imbued inanimate objects with specter-like qualities, casting them into uncanny relationships with one another.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), Frida Kahlo, 1937; printed later. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), Frida Kahlo, 1937; printed later. On loan from Stanton B. and Nancy w. Kaplan. © Colette Urbajtel/Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

This set of photographs is the result of decades of collecting by Stan and Nancy Kaplan. The Kaplans have a profound appreciation for photography, and Stan has spent years learning about Bravo as an artist while developing a connoisseur’s eye for his prints. The Kaplans have been supporters of the photography program at The Ringling for years, but have now generously promised a gift of their collection of fine art photography, including these works by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. This gracious support of The Ringling will provide our community with access to examples of some of the greatest photographic works of the twentieth century, and will ensure that photography will remain a key area of collecting and exhibitions at The Ringling in perpetuity.


Written by Christopher Jones, Curator of Photography and Media Art

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