About Lola Alvarez Bravo

  • Biography
  • Art

Lola Alvarez Bravo was born as Dolores Martinez de Anda on April 3, 1903, in Lagos de Moreno in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Her father, Gonzalo Martinez, was a furniture importer and her mother, Sara de Anda, left the family when Lola was very young. Consequently, the family, Lola, her older brother, and father, moved to Mexico City, where they lived in a mansion with twenty-eight rooms (stables, a theatre, a ballroom, and dining and reception rooms). In 1916 her father died unexpectedly in a train car, and she was taken in by her older half brother. During this time, she attended a school for nuns; however, after suffering the loss of her father and a good life, she struggled with the strict schooling, the lack of economic security, and the lack of affection from her half brother and his wife.

Lola met, arguably, the most influential person in her life—Manuel Alvarez Bravo. They began their relationship as teenagers, meeting at terraces and having intellectual discussions. In 1925 they married and moved to Oaxaca, where their story becomes interlaced not only as husband and wife, but also as photographers; it is impossible to solely describe her artistic life without mentioning Manuel. He was working as a photographer and she started as his assistant. Learning by his side, she would also make recommendations to him about the best angles or lighting. They set up a darkroom in their house, and she learned from Manuel about the photographic process. In 1927, they moved to Mexico City where their only son, Manuel Alvarez Martinez, was born, and where they opened a gallery in their own house in Tacubaya.

Shortly thereafter, Manuel Alvarez Bravo became sick, and Lola took over his work to avoid having his customers find out about his sickness. Lola acquired many of the skills and experiences she needed during this season, as well as the confidence in her ability to take photographs. In 1929, she met Tina Modotti, a prominent photographer, who rather than being a huge influence on Bravo’s photography, she was more of a trailblazer, a role model as woman photographer. The Alvarez Bravo bought two cameras from Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. Then in 1934, Manuel and Lola separated, but she decided to keep his last name. Her reasons for doing so remain a mystery but guesses include the lifelong emotional attachment, taking advantage of his fame, or simply for logical reasons, since she was known with that name in the art community. After their separation, she rented a room from the artist Maria Izquierdo.

The separation was a monumental event in her life, and marked the beginning of Lola Alvarez as an independent photographer. She left her son in the care of his paternal grandmother, and began her journey to becoming Mexico's first female photographer. The following years she worked in various places: as an elementary school teacher; as the photographer for the magazine El maestro rural; photography instructor; and was in charge of the photography department in what is now known as the Instituto Nacional de las Bellas Artes.

Exhibitions of Alvarez Bravo’s work attracted worldwide attention. In 1935 she exhibited two of her photo-collages—where the Surrealist influence is most evidently seen—in Guadalajara. She also showed her work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then had her first solo exhibition in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico. Since then, her works have been exhibited throughout the world in traveling exhibitions.

During the last years of her life, Alvarez Bravo worked as a co-editor for the fashion section of a Mexico City newspaper. She also dabbled in film, working alongside Frida Kahlo, one of the most famous subjects she photographed. In the 1980s and 1990s, much interest in her work and art was awakened and long overdue homage was paid to her through exhibitions of her work. On June 31, 1993, Lola Alvarez Bravo died after living a very productive and rich artistic life.

Lola Alvarez Bravo’s life and career as a photographer was greatly influenced by her first husband, Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Their shared vision was to reflect and frame daily life in Mexico, but Lola Alvarez Bravo dealt with photography in a much more intimate way. She focused and exposed the flaws of her subjects through her countless portraits of famous artists and ordinary people. Approaching the subject, she emphasized their expressions—innately humane. Extremely intrigued by human life, her photographs represent snapshots of daily acts—people walking, climbing stairs, children playing, and religious traditions, which together formed the Mexican culture. Portraits, landscapes, nudes, and photomontages fill her life's portfolio.

Her most famous portraits include the intimate photographs taken of Frida Kahlo. This friendship was characterized by a deep sense of trust; Kahlo allowed Bravo to take pictures of her personal life. The invaluable photographs of this famous and enigmatic painter brought much attention to the work of Bravo. Photographs of Kahlo looking in the mirror or sitting on her bed in her famous Casa Azul offer visual descriptions of the life she lived.

Alternatively, Bravo also was fascinated by the lives of the indigenous. She felt responsible for portraying their lives and their struggles. In a practical sense, Bravo maintained a certain distance from the political realm, but she sought to awaken in her audience a sense of sympathy through her photography. One of her most poignant works, titled Indiferencia (Indifference, c. 1940), shows a blind homeless woman on her knees surrounded by people who are completely oblivious to her plight.

The influence of Surrealism on her work is ever present, especially in her experimental photomontages. Through the interposed images she is able to deliver a stronger political message. Similar to her photographs, she uses them to present the struggles of poverty. One of her explicitly surrealistic works shows the head of a man floating on the water, while copies of ballerinas adorn the montage (The Dream of the Drowned, (1945). Another shocking montage is The Dream of the Poor (1935)showing a dirty, poor, sleeping child with coins up in the sky, symbolizing his dream. Her later photomontages are a critique of technology, modernism, and urbanism, filled with images of skyscrapers. Unmistakably surrealistic, these montages show the many facets of her talent. 

Alvarez Bravo was inspired by her physical surroundings. Using windows, trees, doorways, and architectural settings, she framed the subjects. For example, her photograph En su propia carcel (11 a.m.) (c. 1950)portrays a woman framed by the window, as well as by the squared shadows, signifying a sense of being imprisoned that the photographer refers to in the title In her own jail (11 a.m.). Through her photographs, Alvarez Bravo also excelled in the use of texture and lighting.

Despite her late start as an artist, she developed as a photographer amidst the obstacles in what was considered a male field. Bravo paved the way for other women to keep working in the field of photography. Undoubtedly, her active role as a storyteller enabled her to seize and showcase the colorful life of Mexico, representing both the exotic and the deplorable. Images of a country—the children, the poor, and religious processions—were captured through the lens of this talented female artist.