There are 185 photographs in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It seems a contradiction, but the images on view are both extremely Mexican - and extremely subtle.
They are free of heat and bombast.The Mexico we see in the snapshots of tourists, and in the public art of Orozco and Siqueiros, is a land of endless excess. Its brass bands are too loud, its sunlight is too bright, its taxi-cabs are painted yellow-purple - pink, its chilis are too hot.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, now 76, has lived there all his life. He is a poet with a camera, a humanist, an artist. He knows the revolution, but his art is free of rhetoric. He knows the blare of Mexico, but his pictures never yell.
There is something slow about them. A striking worker, murdered, lies in a pool of blood, a nude is swathed in bandages. Yet even when his subjects shock, his images are full of peace. Quietly, superbly, they seem to open, to unfold.
His work is free of artifice. He does not have a cause, a point of view, a style. There is no ego in his art. His personality is transparent. The viewer wanders through his show as if peering into Mexico through Alvarez Bravo's clear, accepting eye.
He was born in Mexico City in 1902. Both his father and his grandfather were painters and photographers, and he grew up in an "atmosphere in which art was breathed." For many years he worked as a motion-picture camerman. He knew John Ford and Bunuel. He worked with Sergei Eisenstein on "Que Viva Mexico." He met Paul Strand in 1933, and the next year came to know Henri Cartier-Bresson. All these famous masters of the camera are well known for their signatures, their invented styles, but Alvarez Bravo chose to take a different tack.
"The more pretentious artist," he wrote in 1966, "craves to become famous, and it is characteristic of his work that it is bought for the name rather than for the work . . . a name that is built up by propaganda."
Alvarez Bravo does not strut. He does not show us who he is, he shows us what he sees.
He sees a woman talking to her son, a barber cutting hari, a pile of bricks, a hillside, shadows on a wall, a painted sign, a market. His subjects aren't exceptional, yet his pictures haunt the mind.
Certain themes recur - figures partly hidden by shadows or a veil, walls, the dusty, sunstriped landscape. And though his attitude seems too calm to be obsessive, throughout his show we feel an easy and unfrightened acquaintance with death. His white sheets have the look of shrouds, his shadows wipe out faces. A woman's feet are seen standing among puddles. Is that darkly gleaming rainwater or blood?
His photographs are, with few exceptions, layered and complex. They do not reveal themselves at once. He is not an artist seduced by the exotic. That amazing orchid turns out to be an orange peel, that almost-Japanese image of Mt. Fuji a pile of white sand.
Two other photo exhibitions accompany his retrospective at the Corcoran. One is given to photography of MExico taken in the '20s and '30s by Tina Modotti, Edward Weston and Paul Strand. THeir formally composed, single-image pictures, with rigid still lifes and peasants posed like statues, seem fossilized and leaden when seen beside his work. A second minor show is devoted to the work of four young Mexican photographers, all of whom to some degree imitate the master. If their work is any indication, a great teacher he is not.
His art is not transferable. He offers no tricks, no compositional devices for others to adopt and use. His retrospective was organized by Jane Livingston, who in doing so has shown us one of the most impressive photographers of our time. She also has borrowed, from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a small, stunning show of 18th- and 19th-century Mexican serapes.
THe Manuel Alvarez Bravo retrospective closes Nov. 26.