A record of her own people

Lola Alvarez Bravo's photos offer glimpses of the hope – and the discontent – behind the Mexican revolution.

Lola Alvarez Bravo did not set out to be the "first woman photographer" of Mexico, but that is how she is remembered today. Wife of Mexico's leading photojournalist Manuel Alvarez Bravo, her influence extends to the latest generation of Mexico's female photographers, many of whom studied under her tutelage. Bravo's contribution is now being acknowledged through an assessment of her work by scholar Elizabeth Ferrer titled Lola Alvarez Bravo.

Little is known of Dolores ("Lola") Martinez de Anda's early years. She met Manuel Bravo when both were very young and the childhood friendship grew into a marriage. Though she wielded the camera occasionally, she viewed her work as an extension of her husband's passion. It wasn't until Alavarez Bravo left Manuel that she considered photography more seriously. With a young child to support, it was a means of income.

Yet, her intellectual capacity, the influential circle of friends the Bravos had fostered during their marriage, and a willingness to push beyond traditional female boundaries allowed her the freedom to pursue her artistic endeavors.

As photographer, educator, and curator Bravo traveled the country documenting rural areas, indigenous people, and cultural traditions. Her imagery was inspired by "frolicking," she said – a playful description that typifies her approach to her subjects.

Colleagues such as surrealist painters Frida Kahlo and Marie Izquierdo, as well as visits from acclaimed French photo-grapher Henri Cartier Bresson, encouraged her to weave both surreal and traditional elements into her work.

It's this infusion of the two contrasting visual approaches that inform Bravo's work. "In Barbershop with Landscape" (circa 1950) two barbers work on customers seated on wooden chairs in a courtyard, under the shade of a tree. An overturned wooden crate acts as a table to rest barber kits. A hat and jacket hang separately on pegs in the tree; a broom is carefully placed against its trunk. Across from the men sit two young children. Behind this tableau is a single-story mud-brick building absorbing the hot sun. As viewers we come upon a moment – spontaneous, yet frozen in time. The presentation is formal, yet offbeat.

In "In Her Own Jail, 11 a.m.," a woman leans against a railing, shadows creating a lattice pattern across her face and surroundings. Again, the attention to structural detail is evident, but the overall impression is surreal, suggesting Bravo's capacity to photograph visual metaphors, as her title suggests.

Bravo was also known for her portraits, particularly the intimate portrayals of her closest friend, Frida Kahlo. On the book's cover, Kahlo stands against a stucco wall peering into a mirror, looking as though she is standing on a cloud. Attended by her faithful puppies, it is an almost mythic portrayal of Kahlo, yet fragility is revealed in her expression.

These were not necessarily photographs created for gallery walls, which in part, may explain the delay in her recognition. Alvarez Bravo offered a documentary record of a Mexico redefined by its own people. Unlike the overt political statements of other artists of that time, Alvarez Bravo's was a far more nuanced expression of the revolution's hopes and its discontent. The humanity of her subjects shines through the political rhetoric.

Collectively, the expression of a country's psyche is thoughtfully explored. That we can now appreciate her particular genius is a testament to her enduring gifts.

Joanne Ciccarello is a Monitor photo editor.

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