THE BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO was taken in 1938, but in the unexpectedness of its content, it still delivers a mild shock. In the frame, a young woman, naked except for some bandage wrapped around her thighs, waist and feet, lies on her back on a mat outdoors, eyes closed, one leg raised and crossed over the other. Her left arm—which is toward the camera—rests under her head providing us with a full, unobstructed view of her left breast and the shadow it casts over her armpit; the right hand rests at the base of her stomach a few inches below which sprouts the black tuft of her pubic hair. Placed next to the woman, in the foreground, are a few spiky pods of cacti. One of the 20th century's best-known photographers, Manuel Alvarez Bravo of Mexico, shot this picture, titled 'The Good Reputation Sleeping', as the cover image for a Surrealist art exhibition catalogue, but it was deemed too bold to be printed.
Another of Alvarez Bravo's photographs shows a young man, also lying flat on his back on the ground, eyes almost shut—except that he is dead, his face streaked with blood that has also drenched the ground under his head. 'Striking Worker, Assassinated' (Obrero en huelga, asesinado) was shot in 1934 and between its in-your-face gruesomeness and the frank, if somewhat loopy, eroticism of the first photo, Alvarez Bravo seems to have set the tone for the future of photography, right up until the present.
Both of these are among the 50 black-and-white images (silver gelatin prints made from the original negatives) on display at the Instituto Cervantes in New Delhi as part of an exhibition called In Light of Mexico—Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Octavio Paz: A Dialogue between Photography and Poetry.