Museumgoers who invested the requisite shoe leather in last year’s sprawling blockbuster “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries” can be excused for thinking they had thoroughly covered the subject. One art form that was missing from the San Antonio exhibit, however, was photography, which has been overshadowed by twentieth-century Mexican painting (see “Looking at Mexico,” TM, April 1991). But while Mexican photography hasn’t produced figures with the name recognition of muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquieros, the medium has engaged some formidable talent—as attested by “Contemporary Mexican Photography,” the survey on view through August 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Assembled by curator Anne Tucker from the museum’s own collection of Mexican photography, one of the largest in this country, the 91-piece show is a penetrating self-portrait of the Americas’ most venerable and complex culture.

The patron saint of contemporary Mexican photography is Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a self-taught artist who began his career in the twenties and who at age ninety remains the most influential force in Mexican photography. Bravo’s aesthetics were shaped during the heady days of the Mexican avant-garde, following the civil war in 1921. During this period Diego Rivera, who had spent the war years doing Cubist pictures in Paris, and his colleagues were painting ambitious murals extolling the heroic struggle of the Mexican masses.

Bravo shared the muralists’ interest in native Mexican culture, but his own work depended less on ideology than on a keen instinct for subtleties and paradoxes. Frida Kahlo in Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Studio, Puente de Alvarado, México, taken in the thirties, portrays Rivera’s wife—also an accomplished painter—in her trademark peasant dress; Kahlo’s expression isn’t the painfully introspective gaze familiar in her celebrated self-portraits, but a chic, almost cheeky seduction of the camera (one can easily imagine Madonna, who wants to make a film about Kahlo, playing the scene). Bravo emphasizes the contradiction by seating Kahlo next to a table, on which sits a large glass globe reflecting a detailed fish-eye view of the entire studio—a witty counterpoint to the intense inward focus of Kahlo’s artistic vision.

Bravo also made intriguing images of less complex people, turning commonplace scenes, such as a child drinking from a public fountain and old men hunched at a street-side cafe, into powerful, almost Caravaggio-esque dramas that merge gritty realism with transcendental possibilities. Even Bravo’s overtly political pictures have an undercurrent of mysticism. In Obrero en huelga asesinado (“The Striking Worker Killed,” 1934), the blood streaked over the young man’s face and pooled beneath his head seems curiously artificial, almost as theatrical as the gory polychrome statues of the scourged Christ found in Mexican churches. Transformed from a victim demanding temporal justice into a supernatural martyr, the dead man has already entered a timeless cycle of suffering, acceptance, and hope.

The lyrical, oftentimes magical element in Bravo’s work sets it apart from the deadpan social realism of such American contemporaries as Depression-era documentary photographer Walker Evans. The same approach has continued among Bravo’s students and stylistic heirs, who have portrayed their country’s multilayered popular culture with an empathy and sense of wonder rarely seen in the work of similarly disposed “American scene” photographers.

Chicago-born Mariana Yampolsky, who emigrated to Mexico in 1945 and studied with Bravo’s former wife and assistant, Lola, puts a feminist spin on Bravo’s populist outlook. In Desde que te ausentaste (“Since You Departed,” 1984), a young village girl, praying at a shrine to a dead man—most likely a relative—interrupts her reverie to glance back at the camera. The brilliance of the girl’s eyes, matched by the shimmer of her lace dress and the tinseled shrine, has the quality of an apparition, as if the film has captured the scintilla of a spirit. In Esperando al padrecito (“Waiting for the Priest,” no date), all that is left of that spark of youthful fervor is the patience of four wizened village women, wrapped in rough shawls, seated on a wooden bench like dutiful schoolgirls. But Yampolsky also implies that such lives are punctuated by real miracles: In Caricia (“Caress,” 1989), an Indian woman strokes her child’s face with weathered fingers, her face serene, her long hair streaked with a dazzling, almost celestial light.

Graciela Iturbide is perhaps the most widely recognized of Bravo’s former students. She began her career documenting Mexico’s Indians for the government, and her sophisticated, surrealistic images record both the persistence and the adaptation of some of the oldest continuous beliefs in the world. Mujer angel (“Angel Woman,” Sonora Desert, 1979) pictures an Indian woman walking alone in a landscape of unrelieved solitude. Backlighted by the sun, her silhouette is as stylized as an abstract sculpture, and her long black hair drapes down her back like the cowl of some mysterious sect. She is also carrying a large late-model portable stereo radio. But there is nothing condescending in Iturbide’s treatment of the improbable scene; we viewers, rather than ridiculing her subject, are more likely to speculate on what the angel woman knows that we don’t.

The latest generation of Bravo-influenced photographers is represented by Flor Garduño, who worked as an assistant to the aging maestro in the late seventies. Like Yampolsky and Iturbide, Garduño has focused on the culture of Indian villages, an intricate hybrid of pre-Columbian, Catholic, and modern influences. La Trinidad (“The Trinity,” Hidalgo, 1981) was taken at the site where the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most powerful symbol of Mexican nationalism, first appeared to an Indian convert in 1531. Garduño’s photograph shows a plain white shirt, its arms outstretched like those of a scarecrow, staked atop a large tree; we aren’t certain whether we are witnessing the crucifixion or the ascension of the shirt. An Indian woman sits enigmatically beside the tree, as if contemplating the latest permutation in an ever-evolving cosmology.

It hardly comes as a surprise that in a nation of metastasizing cities, the urban scene has also drawn many of Mexico’s best photographers. In 1952 Héctor García, known primarily as a crusading photojournalist, shot El Niño en el vientre de concreto (“The Child in the Concrete Womb”), a picture of a small boy in tattered clothes huddled in a boxy, coffinlike concrete niche in a fetal position (the position sometimes used in Indian burials). This scene of urban squalor seems to have been unearthed by archaeologists of the distant future. In Sergio Toledano’s series Terremoto en Mexico (“Earthquake in Mexico,” 1985), that future might have arrived; a line of policemen emerging from the dust of the disaster appears more menacing than helpful—science fiction storm troopers materializing out of a post-apocalyptic haze. In contrast, Lázaro Blanco’s Al viento y al sol (“To the Wind and to the Sun,” 1984) transforms an image of a child hanging out wash into a ritual of elemental joy, the oral sheets blurred by the wind, the sunlight moving over the scene like a benediction.

Some of the most effective images in the show are also the most unexpected. Lourdes Grobet’s portraits of lady wrestlers, collectively titled La doble lucha (“The Double Struggle,” 1982—83), poignantly contrast the women’s public personae, glittering Amazons in sequined masks and embroidered costumes, with their dreary private existence in small rooms decorated with garish stuffed animals and religious plaques. John O’Leary’s studies of the male wrestling culture are equally trenchant. Sueños de opio (“Opium Dreams,” 1979) is a portrait of two scrawny young wannabees standing in a derelict gym, its floor littered with beer cans and barbells. Behind them is a wall plastered with posters of such muscle-bound heroes as El Baron Rojo and Brazo de Oro. In different ways, O’Leary’s and Grobet’s offbeat subjects measure the distance between expectation and reality in Mexican life.

Yet somehow that life goes on, propelled by a cultural engine that started chugging along when the pharaohs still ruled Egypt. Nothing in the show captures the whole cycle more effectively than Carlos Contreras’ Circo de Bibis (“Bibis’ Circus,” 1982), a series of photographs documenting an impoverished small-time circus. In one indelible image a clown swings from a trapeze, his face contorted as he glances down at the tiny mattress intended as his safety net. Beneath him are rows of children’s faces turned upward in unanimous hilarity at the clown’s antics, too innocent to grasp the pain involved in their pleasure. Above them all is the dark dome of the ragged canvas tent, its ripped and frayed surface flecked with hundreds of starlike pinpoints of sunlight, a replica of the cosmos that the ancient Maya believed could be kept in motion only by human sacrifice. The magic in Contreras’ microcosm is not that the tent remains aloft—or the heavens—but that the children still believe and that the clown’s suffering is ultimately redeemed.