The strategy sounds like a paradox, but it works. Conceal in order to reveal. That's what Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo does in timeless black-and-white prints now on display at the Museum of Modern Art. The mysterious images created out of ordinary subjects make him what curator Susan Kismaric calls "one of the inventors of the modern vocabulary of photography."
More than 70 years of work by the photographer (175 photographs from the 1920s to '90s) show the many phases of this venerable man of Mexican art.
His style evolved along with the art of photography. His first images are in the misty, soft-focus Pictorialist style of the beginning of the century. "Sand and Pines" (1920s) is a gauzy, Corot-like landscape (the aim of this movement was to approximate on film the effects of painting).
Then Alvarez Bravo, who was self-taught and relied on books and magazines for information on technique, encountered the bold graphic work of modernists like Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. Through tight cropping and isolation of elements, he emphasized the essential geometry of objects. In "Paper Games" (1926-27), a coil of adding machine tape he brought home from his day job as an accountant becomes a study in spirals.
In the 1930s, Alvarez Bravo was taken up by the Surrealists, who were impressed by his style of infusing mystery into ordinary scenes. His signature style of obscuring a crucial part of an image and juxtaposing bizarre details fit Surrealism's emphasis on the uncanny.
Like French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alvarez Bravo found on the streets of his country cryptic scenes that seem to expand in the mind of the viewer. "Daughter of the Dancers" (1933) combines his interest in formal composition (contrasting geometric patterns) with an extra layer that piques our curiosity. A girl with a round-brimmed hat peers into a dark circular window, surrounded by herringbone tiles on a scarred wall. What does she see? Why can't we see it, too? Her face is obscured, as is the sight she stands on tiptoe to glimpse.
In "The Crouched Ones" (1934), Alvarez Bravo frames the bodies of men inside a cantina stall. Their heads are hidden in shadow; their legs seem manacled by a chain that weaves through the bar stools. A thoroughly unremarkable street scene blossoms into an enigmatic tableau.
Similarly, in "Girl Looking at Birds" (1931), the photographer combines his interest in geometric pattern with his flair for obfuscation. A little girl in strong sunlight shields her eyes with her arm, casting half her face into shadow, as she sits before a door studded with round medallions. The contrast between the orderly, rational geometry and the unknowable human element makes the picture striking.
Photography can also reveal what is usually concealed. Alvarez Bravo freezes snippets of life to unveil secrets the naked eye cannot detect. In "How Small the World Is!" (1942), two pedestrians pass each other, oblivious to the other's presence. The woman holds an object, as if offering a gift. Behind a wall, lines of diapers rise and fall in scallops, suggesting deeper layers of life and meaning.
Alvarez Bravo forged a personal style through shooting the daily sights of his native land, which were his subject throughout a long career. Grounded in reality - the streets and gardens and people of Mexico - his images rise to flights of fantasy.
* Manuel Alvarez Bravo's black-and-white prints will be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art through May 18.