Manuel Alvarez Bravo has a heavy burden on him: he is widely considered the greatest Mexican photographer.
While I suppose every country needs its go-to name, I've never been quite convinced. It's not that the pictures I saw lacked coherence, or conviction. Just that they didn't all seem very compelling.
But then, how do we know photographers? I first encountered just one picture—the one in Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs. (Accompanied by one of the weakest essays in that fine book, I regret to say. Uh, Rapunzel?) Then I saw a magazine article or two. Then, a motley of small or indifferently published books, some with only a chapter or a section on Alvarez Bravo. I don't recall ever having seen any original prints, although I might be forgetting one or two encountered in group shows.
The very best monographs are more than just pretty picture books. They actively make a case for the photographer, by showing the photographer in his or her best light.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photopoetry, published by Thames & Hudson in Britain and Chronicle Books in the USA last year, is by far the best monograph I've encountered on this photographer. The selection is comprehensive and first rate, the layout unobtrusive and the sequencing expert, the reproduction quality consistently excellent—the ink on paper has an almost sensual yumminess, good enough to give you that familiar but often elusive visceral sense of gratification. I've known many of these pictures before, but I sense from this book that I have only known "of" them; I never really saw many of them until now. (There are twenty never-previously-published pictures, too.) This is really an example of the highest function of the best monographs: they make you feel like you really understand a photographer's work. Sometimes for the first time.
Bill Jay, Manuel Alvarez Bravo in London, 1980
It's curious how the best retrospective monographs go out of print and become scarce, so one generation has a chance to "know" a certain photographer and the next generation doesn't; I realized recently that all of my favorite monographs by André Kertész—there are a handful—are out of print and hard to get now. So how do people know Kertész now? Probably more flittingly and furtively than I know his work.
We never see all of a photographer. Only a subset. Whether that subset is enough to let us grasp a sense of the whole life work is the key.
Well, here we have a chance to really get to know Manuel Alvarez Bravo. I venture to guess that this will remain the standard monograph on Alvarez Bravo for some time to come—most probably even after it goes out of print and becomes hard to get. It's difficult to envision a better one. It really helped me "get" Alvarez Bravo. The first book on him I've truly enjoyed.
Nicely made book, too.-
A recent book I got that I really didn't like is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Photographic Work, published by Stiedl & Partners. I understand the book was in part underwritten by a Kirchner museum, and I don't know the rest of Kirchner's work; he's primarily known as a painter. Perhaps this record of his photographic activities is of interest to specialists. Whatever its hidden merits, as a photographic book I found it resoundingly unconvincing. Described as "a skilled photographer" in the publisher's writeup, what I see is a manifestly unskilled photographer (have a look for yourself—there are some sample spreads at Steidlville) whose only virtue is that his pictures are now antique, and whose lack of skill is not ameliorated by his having had anything in particular to say. (As a photographer, I mean. I have nothing to contribute about his painting.) I think I understand the difference between "good" bad and "bad" bad, and this is just bad—I see a photographer who hasn't any idea what he's after and doesn't know how to get it, one not so much exploring as bumbling.
It's my own fault. I took a flier on this, without really knowing anything about it. It looked enticing, and it's from Steidl—how bad could it be? Steidl is the leading photographic book publisher in the world right now (Jorg Colberg has done us all a favor in presenting a translation of an excellent interview with Gerhard Stiedl, on Conscientious). But I confess I'm a bit down on them right now. It sometimes seems that in their creative white heat to rush book after book to press, they're not being as thoughtful about content as you'd like them to be. I also admit that I've been a bit too overenthusiastic about buying their product—a touch of white heat about that, too—and I feel like I've gotten singed a time or two. Skip this one, and be careful about getting too caught up about the rushing cascade of titles from Steidl—there's absolutely some wonderful stuff coming from them, but it's not all wonderful.
Finally, a very different kind of book—one never destined to become a collector's item and that would get the boot from any self-respecting high-end gallerist's art library, but that is a delight pro populo nonetheless. I wrote not long ago about a couple of books of this type—"samplers," I called 'em. I should have waited! Stan Banos recommended Photo:Box the other day, and because I trust Stan's eye I promptly ordered it.
It's fantastic. It was originally published in Italy, but the translations are so well managed you won't notice. A smallish (7x9", 18x23 cm) but hefty brick of a book, it takes standard sampler form: one picture from a photographer accompanied by a mini-essay. But there are two ways it departs from the norm: the quality of the reproductions is really amazingly good, especially considering the bargain price (though they'd be good enough at any price), and the write-ups are lively and engaging. I should disclose that I haven't read all of it yet. In what I have read, there is some repetitiveness, and the insight is a tad uneven; but the writing is far better than just the ordinary rote "content" of pasteurized, processed book-product.
There's a lot to look at in Photo:Box (so called, by the way, because the cover wraps all the way around and closes with a magnetic flap). It's divided into sections: Reportage, Portraits, Nudes, Women, Travel, Cities, Art, Fashion, Still Life, Sport, and Nature. A great many of the classic pictures are just the ones you'd want to see from each photographer (actually there are 250 pictures by 200 photographers, so a number of photographers are represented by more than one picture, in different sections), and there are some lovely surprises, too. Inevitably in this sort of production—or, indeed, in any history of photography text- or coffee-table book—the earlier photographers are more canonical than the contemporary ones; but you won't mind, because the contemporary selections are so nicely chosen and so entertaining. And just as the German PhotoWisdom has German photographers well represented, so Photo:Box has Italian photographers aplenty, especially in the "Fashion" section. It's not a drawback. The only thing you might need to be aware of is that there are a lot of nudes in the book—and not only in the "Nudes" section—so it's not appropriate for things like middle school or high school art department libraries.
There are also a surprising number of pictures included that I've reproduced or discussed on TOP in the past—I didn't count, but at least eight or ten, maybe more.Published just last month by Abrams in the U.S. and Thames & Hudson in the U.K., Photo:Box attempts to be a history of photography in pictures, and it does pretty well at that. Regardless of how well you feel it succeeds at that grand ambition, though, I think virtually any photographer of any skill level and any level of knowledge would thoroughly enjoy it. You'll like it the first time you leaf through it (if you have the stamina to make it all the way though at one sitting, which you might not, there's so much), and you'll find it an ample cornucopia to return to again and again, to dip in to the write-ups and savor the nice reproductions anew. A lively and vigorous compendium.
Again, as a book, not a collector's piece, never likely to appreciate in value, not "essential"—but very highly recommended. You'll love this. And at less than sixteen bucks for 512 very high-quality pages, how can you go wrong? Don't miss. Fun and filling.
A round of applause for Stan for finding this one.
MikeFeatured Comment by John Camp: "Regarding Ernst Kirchner, there have been a number of books in the last few years about famous painters using photography. Some are obvious cobbled-together catalogs of personal snapshots paired with more famous paintings, and have little to say about anything, but others are extremely interesting. Degas, for one, was seriously influenced by the way cameras crop scenes to produce surprising point-of-view effects, and he often used those odd (for the time) points-of-view.
"More recently, I encountered a very nice book called Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera. Rockwell was a fine illustrator, not a great painter—but his virtually daily use of the camera in constructing his complicated, multi-layered illustrations is really eye-opening. He didn't do the photography himself, but served as a director, and the results of the complicated scenes he created are almost like photographic forerunners of the stuff you see from Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson...but done in the 1930s and '40s.
"It's also interesting to see how he took a real individual in a photograph, and reshaped his features into a kind of stereotype (the brash kid, the comical guy with a squashed hat, the prissy old lady, etc.). He actually shot a nude once, but the photographer was so embarrassed that he wouldn't come out from under the dark cloth.
"The book is straight-forward and free of art-world cant. Although I'm not really a Rockwell fan, I am a fan of this book."
Mike replies: That's fascinating. I was into Rockwell as a child (I drew all the time back then), and I never knew he worked from photographs, much less from photographs he directed and had made for him.
My favorite photographs by a painter are in the book Pierre Bonnard: Photographs and Paintings from the Collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, published by Aperture in 1988, long out of print. (It was originally published in Paris as Bonnard Photographe by Editions Philippe Sers in 1987.) The pictures are charming snapshots of domestic life, clearly made as visual notes, and I suppose I must record that they are "bad" photographs—but to my mind a very good sort of bad. A few of the pictures in that book have never left my mind.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "I just happened to pick up Photo:Box waiting for it to stop raining; as you pointed out, it's not the kind of book you'd expect much from. And bam—the quantity and quality really threw me! This is one unbeatable compilation at that price. Will be ordering it and Eugene Richards' A Procession of Them as soon as I get home from work today (through your link, natch). Haven't bought a photo book in a good half year and am looking forward to these two...."
Featured Comment by Javier: "In my humble opinion the best Mexican photographer is possibly Lola Alvarez Bravo, Manuel's wife. I discovered her by chance: a Mexican friend had the habit of offering me a book about Frida Kahlo, the national icon, each time she came to visit. I do not like Kahlo, she even disgusts me, but found some of her best pictures were taken by this confusingly named photographer. Initially I even thought it was a mistake, and they should be credited to Manuel. Later on I discovered she married him, assisted him for years and after he dropped her (a nasty story) the only thing she could do to earn a living was photography, and she decided to keep the family name. She was a fabulous portraitist and an excellent photographer on her own, always obscured by Manuel's fame.
"By the way, Manuel also had Graciela Iturbide, probably the second best-known Mexican photographer, as an assistant. I heard her recently reminisce about those days. It seems he taught her to develop a personal vision, which she did, but when she asked about technique, the great Manuel told her all she needed to know was on Kodak's instruction sheets..."
Mike replies: The first monograph in English of Lola Alvarez Bravo came out two years ago, and I haven't even seen it yet. Have to figure out a way to find that to take a look....