A to Z of Photography: Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

A to Z of Photography: Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

We all like to collate, classify, and generally create order out of the world. It's no different with photography and so over the next 26 articles I'll be covering an A to Z of photography.

In starting an A to Z of photography, I'm reminded of an episode of Blackadder (Ink and Incapability) in which he meets Samuel Johnson who is compiling a dictionary of the English language. Blackadder responds to the introduction by saying "I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafibularities", at which point the doctor begins writing furiously.

Almost by definition, we can't know everything and so it would be foolish to even attempt to write a comprehensive encyclopedia. Rather the expectation at the beginning is more pragmatic. This A to Z is to dip in to with your morning coffee, perhaps learn something new, and maybe add to it through the comments. I'll touch upon two broad areas: content and creation. The first will generally cover photographers, books, photos, and places. The second will look at manufacturers, gear, and techniques. There is no specific rationale for a subject's inclusion other than I think it's interesting!

The idea is that this A to Z becomes more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it is intended that you can read through, consume, absorb, and hopefully learn something new. However what makes Fstoppers a tour de force is the readers and the community they form. So please interact with, and add to, the words that are written here. Agree, dissent, amplify, suggest something new, or indeed write something extensive yourself. I want to learn as much from the readers as I do writing this.

So let's start the first of these 26 articles with…

Manuel Alvarez-Bravo (1902-2002)

There is one adage in life that it's not what you know, but who you know. There are a ton of photographers out there who have a lucky break and base their entire career on it (remember Zappa the Krappa?). It's when you are both talented and know people that the magic happens, which it did for Manuel Alvarez Bravo (galleries of his images).

Born and raised in Mexico City, Alvarez-Bravo trained as an artist before turning to photography. By 1930 he replaced Tina Modotti at the magazine Mexican Folkways. That would be the same Tina Modotti who worked closely with, and was a lover of, one Edward Weston. During this period he took pictures, of the artists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. He also met, and exhibited with, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans. One of their contemporaries, he formed part of the North American upwelling of photographic talent that stormed their way to the post-war world of the 1950s.

Now known for his nudes, Good Reputation Sleeping (NSFW) is a delicate example of long forgotten hot summers. Yet simmering beneath the surface is an artist exploring the same trope that Weston, Steiglitz, and Strand did — the female nude. Whilst seemingly innocent, there is a visual discontinuity that plays against the traditional Mexican architecture and athletic subject. That discontinuity is the clothing. To me, the bandages are reminiscent of Milla Jovovich's Jean-Paul Gaultier clad character, Leeloo, in the FIfth Element. Through contemporary western eyes, the bondage-clad inferences make the image sexualized. Whether that was the intent of Alvarez-Bravo remains to be seen, however the lack of underwear reveals her pubic hair which would have been provocative. By being both partially clad and distant, the image is able to keep asking questions without being explicit. Perhaps those that followed, such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Robert Mapplethorpe, simply continued the same exploration, yet their images continue to shock to this day.

Alvarez-Bravo was, of course, known for more than just nudes, depicting cultural change after the Mexican revolution. His work naturally touched upon the theme of identity and the impact of historical cultural themes, such as myth, literature, and music. In some senses he might be thought of as a street photographer as he covered the everyday interactions of people. He tried to transcend stereotypes whilst being artistic, yet at the same time not descending into the picturesque. Whilst not political he didn't shy away from difficult subjects, including aspects of death such as "Striking Worker, Assassinated" and "Portrait of the Eternal".


The camera is ultimately a simple device. This is exemplified through the pinhole design of the camera obscura where all you need is a hole through which you can project an image onto a screen. The size of the hole (aperture) and distance to the screen (focal length) give some control over the image.

In contemporary camera design a variable size aperture, or diaphragm, provides the greatest flexibility. Usually integrated into the lens, increasing or decreasing its size causes a change to the overall quantity of light that passes through. The f-number (N) is a measure of lens speed, calculated as

N = f/D

where f is the lens focal length and D is aperture diameter. Clicked aperture settings are designed to double or halve this value allowing control of the total exposure value.

Crucially, increasing the size of the aperture decreases the depth of field that is considered acceptably in focus. An increase in the distance to the subject, decrease in aperture size, and decrease in focal length all lead to a larger depth of field. This change is linear for the f-number, but proportional to the square of the focal length or the distance to subject. That means, if you decrease your focal length or move further away from your subject you will more rapidly increase your depth of field at no expense to exposure, but with a wider field of view. As with anything optical, there is always a trade-off between options!

Beyond the Cut

Other topics that didn't make the cut include Richard Avedon, Eugène Atget, Ansel Adams, the Airy disk, architectural photography, Arri, and Agfa. What would you include and why?

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body image courtesy of Wikipedia, in the Public Domain.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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This will be a fun run of articles to follow. Thanks Mike.

Thanks for the comment Julian - much appreciated and I'm looking forward to writing the run of articles!

I am very much enjoying the series. Thank you for taking on such a monumental project. Will you be putting the series in a book form at the end? If so so, them I'd like to volunteer to help.

Thanks for the comment Robert! Strangely I had had the same thought this week as it is shaping up better than I thought. Lets talk more at the end of the series