JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against off white walls in the divided gallery space and the elevator hallway. The vintage prints on view are a mix of gelatin silver prints and ferrotypes, made between 1929 and 1978. Physical dimensions range from roughly 6×5 to 10×8 (or reverse). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: This exhibit of the vintage prints of Manuel Álvarez Bravo is the kind of show that seems perfectly designed to make serious collectors and museum acquisition committees drool. While not comprehensive or complete in terms of showing the breadth of the master photographer’s long career, it happily bounces from Modernist compositions and portraits to Mexican culture/folklore and Surrealist inventions, skimming across the tops of the waves and offering a smart sampler of Álvarez Bravo’s most prominent working styles. It mixes well known icons and more obscure gems, each print in its rare early form, and as a group, it’s the best review of Álvarez Bravo’s photography that we are likely to see outside a major museum any time soon.
While we often become jaded towards a photographer’s classics as a result of simple image overexposure, the Álvarez Bravo greatest hits on view here still hold the power to astonish. The wrapped nude of Good Reputation Sleeping (shown as both a single image and a triptych), the backward view of Optical Parabole, the wet floor of The Threshold, the shaft of light in Portrait of the Eternal, and the lost in thought reverie of The Daydream are all amazingly vibrant here, each engrossing in a rich, tactile vintage print.
Álvarez Bravo’s between the wars Modernism is well represented by crisp still lifes of jicama and organ pipes, and more complex compositions of walls and gravel, a bedsheet spread to dry over spiky cactus plants, and a toy horse and brass horn on an ice cream car. His images of Mexican culture have a more straightforward documentary style, albeit with an empathetic warmth for the traditions they capture: children with Day of the Dead sugar skulls, Mayan reliefs, portraits of young women in native dress, and cemetery shrines and decorations. His most memorable images borrow elements of these two styles and then infuse the resulting compositions with a layer of Surrealist mystery and confusion – a dark cross looms in the foreground while a child looks skyward in Voices of Birds, disembodied paper faces hang above a market stall in Laughing Mannequins, and a sinuous fish provides advertising in a doorway in The Big Fish Eats the Little Ones.
This show really is a parade of treasures, and the lushness of the prints allows the subtleties in the imagery to flower and come forth. Bloated pig shaped wineskins, dried corn in a rack, intricate leaf shadows, fallen statuary, Diego Rivera standing under a tree, in the hands of Álvarez Bravo, they become something magical. So while you’ve likely seen many of these pictures before, don’t let that prevent you from experiencing this rare collection of vintage prints up close.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $15000 and $75000, with many marked either Price on Request or Sold. Álvarez Bravo’s prints are widely available in the secondary markets, with a large number of later prints floating around the auction circuit. Recent prices have ranged between $2000 and nearly $300000, with most later prints under $10000 and increasingly rare vintage prints routinely fetching five and low six figures.