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The Poetry in Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s Images.

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A Visceral Reaction

Here’s a simple but curious photo, taken by the photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo: A black and white shot of a street scene. We see an exposed brick wall under a dark sky with diagonal power lines cutting through the clouds above it. In the foreground there’s a sidewalk, gleaming in the sunshine. On it, you see a woman and a man, walking towards one another.

They’re most likely just random pedestrians, but the way they’ve been captured makes it look as though they’re about to meet. It looks dramatic, somehow, that meeting under the dark sky with some stark white laundry fluttering in the background.

Photos causing a visceral reaction

The photo comes from a collection of Álvarez Bravos work I recently stumbled upon, called ‘Photopoetry’. At first I wasn’t quite sure what the title meant, but flipping through the pages, it slowly dawned on me that his work did, indeed, feel poetic.

Now mind you, I have never had much of a knack for poetry. Hell, for the longest time, I considered poetry some incomprehensible writing with too many line breaks. What convinced me to give it a second look was reading a few novels by the author Roberto Bolaño — another Latin American. His work was written in a surprising way: Bolaño uses a language that’s best described as emotional rather than factual. By that I mean he used words to evoke a feeling, and to augment whatever was described on the printed page.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][image_carousel_alternative images=”187,190,191,194″ onclick=”lightbox” items=”1″ items_on_small_screens=”3″ navigation=”1″ slide_by=”by_page” navigation_style=”2″ slide_number_status=”1″ style=”1″ fade=”1″ lazyload=”1″ img_size=”large” css_class=”dark”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][vc_column_text]You must surely have experienced something like that yourself, in a great book, perhaps a movie, or when listening to some of your favorite songs. It’s a visceral reaction, a very physical realization that the piece of art in front of you isn’t just beautiful, but strangely profound.

A certain ‘unsayability’

You could consider poetic language a problem-solver: Telling a good story is difficult. But arguably, it is even more difficult if you’re doing it in the small space of a short story or a poem. The space constraints mean that you have to condense or strip down an idea. That you have to express it differently than you would in longform. Through words that normally mean something else. Through metaphors. Impressions.

The author Virginia Heffernan has even argued that much short form writing is necessarily poetic, that tweets, for instance, often resort to poetry to express an idea in (what was then) 140 characters.

What I’m getting at is that a photo is perfect at accomplishing the same thing: In an instant, it can say accurately what’s difficult to put into words.

As much as I like describing photos, you’ll always get a much better impression by looking at it. I can give you an approximation by talking about stark, white, fluttering, laundry over an exposed brick wall. But the image conveys all those descriptions in an instant. Better yet: It is evocative. The photo touches you by communicating more than just a moment and tapping into something much deeper. It is poetic.

In his book, ‘Why Poetry?’, the author Matthew Zapruder describes the effect like this:

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me (…) retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. (…) Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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