Reva Brooks [Impressions and Reflections]

Official Second World War artist Leonard Brooks and his wife Reva left Canada in 1947 to pursue their destinies. They settled in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. While Leonard painted Reva began photographing rural Mexicans, ultimately producing images that have received high critical acclaim in the United States and Europe. The Brooks' works are in galleries and important collections around the world, but Canada has always remained home for their hearts. During their years in San Miguel, they contributed strongly to the artistic and musical life of the town and have served as a unique bridge between the cultural worlds of Canada and Mexico. To further this effort, in 1992 they established the "Leonard and Reva Brooks Foundation" at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. The objectives are: to maintain records of their lives and works as part of Canada's cultural tradition; to promote the arts in Canada; to fund music scholorships for Mexican students to study music at Queen's.

The Brooks, now both in their mid-eighties, are passionate about their dreams for supporting the arts in Canada and anxious to pursue their goals while still able. The Friends of the Brooks is a non-profit, volunteer support committee to the Brooks' foundation. The committee is dedicated to bringing the Brooks' reputations and works home to Canada.
    Karen Close, Chairman

    by Lauren Carter

"Every work of art which really moves us is in some degree a revelation -- it changes us. Experiences, much more important than instruction, are a seeing with the inner eye -- finding a channel into our essential inner life, a door to our deepest understanding wherein we have the capacity for universal response"

-- Lawren Harris
(in: "Lawren Harris", edited by Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1969)
(-- one of our greatest Canadian figures, I must say....)


Perigrination,  by Reva Brooks
Peregrination, (c) Reva Brooks.

Train to Calais,
photograph by Reva

Train to Calais, (c) Reva Brooks.

Lupita, photograph by Reva Brooks
Lupita, (c) Reva Brooks.

Confrontation, photograph by Reva Brooks
Confrontation, (c) Reva Brooks.

of Chiapas, photograph by Reva Brooks
Hombre of Chiapas, (c) Reva Brooks.

Brothers, photograph by Reva

Brothers, (c) Reva Brooks.

Funeral Procession, photograph by Reva Brooks
Funeral Procession, (c) Reva Brooks.

Her Little Brother, photograph

by Reva Brooks
Little Brother, (c) Reva Brooks.

Open Doorway, photograph by Reva

Open Doorway, (c) Reva Brooks.

The Place Where Birth Has Come, photograph by Reva Brooks
Fruit of the Earth, (c) Reva Brooks.

April 8. 1998,
San Miguel d'Allende, Mexico

I sit in Reva's office, surrounded by her things, wondering if she uses this room anymore. There is a shelf with many photography books on it: Edward Weston: His Life; U.S. Camera 1957 (two copies); The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier Bresson; Great Photographic Essays from Life; Photography as Fine Art; Photography and Society; Picasso and Co. Behind me is the door to the darkroom. On the table to my right sits a picture of Leonard and Reva as old folks framed in silver. Papers are scattered and piled all over the wooden desk. It reminds me of living in [Millbrook artist] Bernie Martin's studio space after he died although then I felt inadequate and not worthy of working at his desk which was probably true at the time. This is my log of being here. My place to write about my impressions of Reva, the encounters I have with her. The things I don't want to forget. It isn't my journal. My journal is the flower covered, spiral-bound notebook. This is strictly about Reva. What she says. Who she appears to be. First Impressions:

She is old. Her mind twists and turns from one moment to the next, skipping into the future and then the past, the time before she knew me. She keeps forgetting who I am but still she is interested. She eyes me and asks Karen who I am. She's intrigued by the fact that I am here to write about her. Yesterday she wanted to get started right away but this morning, when I meet with her, here in her office, the tape recording turning, she will probably have forgotten who I am. I will have to go and get her. I don't think she is even awake yet. Her eyes are bright and shiny and intelligent. It seems that she wants niceness but not in a simple way. Not niceness...maybe joy is a better way of saying that. But it isn't joy that appears in her photographs. Her photographs are like my words, heavy with grief, opening up a dark tunnel into the unspoken. Disturbing for some because they deal directly with death, the effects of death. They capture the personality of it.

"Who's this pretty young girl?" Reva asked when I first arrived here and sat silently on the grey hearth of the fireplace. I was busy looking around the room at Leonard's collage works with the echoed moon image, and the wall-size tapestry with it's browns and blacks and blazing reds. Some of Reva's photographs are propped up on the piano, their corners bent, beside catalogues from long passed exhibitions. "Confrontation" stared at me, the feeling in her face caught in motion like the image of a wave standing curled before crashing. It was the first photograph of Reva's that I ever saw, I found it in the Art Gallery of Peterborough library, in the catalogue for the 1955 Family of Man exhibition at the M.O.M.A. I wanted to meet the woman who could capture someone like that, unguarded, raw, the eyes gleaming with tears and the tiniest metallic reflection of the camera's imagined lens.

"She's not so young," Karen said. Reva's dark eyes, young and bright, curious, uncovering, examining, made me shy beneath them. "Why, sure she is. She looks 14, or 16." "She's twenty-five." "Twenty-five!! My goodness!" We all laughed. This morning the scenario repeated itself. Reva looked at me shyly, unsure, and then turned to Karen and said "who's that?" Reva looked sideways at me and after Karen said I was here to write about her, that I'm a marvelous writer, she said "yes but does she understand people?" That threw me off. Made me suck my breath in. I told her that I try to and I think she saw later (when I read aloud the small piece that I wrote about her going down the hill to take the picture of the Mexican neighbour's dead child) that I do. She was confused as to whether she wrote it or I wrote it. It made me see how much of a partnership this is. Reva telling me her tales and me translating them into story. I attempt to capture her. Like the camera captures people. I am photographing her life with words. Random moments. Important moments. The moments of decision that Reva made, that created her life. These moments include her marrying Leonard, moving to San Miguel, picking up the camera for the first time; becoming nervous about photography and putting the camera down and now, Reva approaching her death.

There is so much to say. This afternoon I felt as if all of my thoughts were too large for the small hole of my mouth. Half the time I couldn't speak. I sat in the kitchen with the others. Leonard's excited hands waved his eternally present cigarette around, the tip of it scattering ashes all over the table, into his drink. His eyes were so bright. We sat around the kitchen table for hours, talking about art being the arrow of civilization and how if we don't have art we aren't civilized. We might as well return to being apes. I understood what he was saying and it made me really excited to be sitting there, talking, while Christina, their cook, gathered ingredients to take next door to her house in order to prepare her secret chicken mole for commida. We were talking about important things: God and art, art and society, the universal spirit, things that Lawren Harris would have spoken about back in the thirties when Reva was in the Theosophical Society with him. The conversation swelled like waves in a harbour, changing and growing, glinting like glass.

Through the window I could see Raoul watering the garden, dipping his bucket into the cistern, the poppies waving their red mouths, the blooms of the blue morning glories stretching wide to receive the morning sun. The birds sang while we sat there, impressions sinking into my mind, freezing on a kind of mental film, the shutter snapping in my memory. I wondered where Reva's camera is as I watched her across the table, looking tired, nodding at something Leonard was saying or exclaiming in agreement. It seems to me an incredible thing that this same woman held that small machine with such dexterity, wandered through villages with Spanish tripping off her tongue. The camera hovered in front of her, always ready to receive the moment's perfect image.

I watched her. Brown eyes on the table, fingers reaching for a watermelon pickle. I feel so young here. Reva crouches on the cusp of her life, somewhat confused by the remnants that are behind her, the marks of her life that act as proof of her place within society. Her life's work. I think she is sometimes startled by the importance that has been placed on her photographs. They are like a script, a silent documentation of her inner vision, flatly, obviously, visible; the emotion inside of her emerging unarguably into print. The pictures are like artifacts of her individual society. It is this society of self that has sustained her through her life, in her efforts to understand herself and, in understanding herself, to reflect the universal condition: love, pain, grief, innocence. This is what we were talking about at the kitchen table.

How art is really artifact, it's a statement of who we are, and the best art is a statement of the fundamental qualities of humanity: the eternal search for meaning, the passage through confusion to insight. I think that art is the ambition to refine ones ideas and ideals into an image; to reach a clear, precise canvas, a note of stunning clarity, a sentence that rings like a meditation gong, the sound and vibration of it echoing truth. Reva did this by picking up a camera for awhile. She took only one or two frames and none at all if her subjects were uncomfortable. Without any words at all, she drew an emotional connection with the person. She allowed them the space, the freedom, the safety, to respond to her directly with their eyes wide open and unguarded. She let them be themselves. The shutter collapsed beneath her finger, the light imprinted itself upon the dark film, and the individual standing before her became shape and shadow, form and emotion, a being translated into an impression, a person made persona. "That's me in there", she's said about her photographs. "As much as my own face". It is her. It's her own face reflected in another's, a moment of intimacy that snapped like a spark, birthing an image of a vulnerable person, one that is witnessing the witness, reflecting the vision of the viewer. That vision, Reva's vision, is subterranean, embedded in the unconscious, no more predictable than what it was she was thinking yesterday, at the kitchen table, her arms resting on the wood, her eyes rising every now and then to Leonard's face and to his mouth moving around the words of an article that he read to us about art and society and the disintegration of both.

Reva used he camera like I use the pen, like Leonard uses the brush, as a tool for connection to this vision that I believe originates within a greater self, a spirit that is shared with all others, a connection that is definable by the simple fact that we all exist within the same realm of universal experience, knowing the innocence of youth, the inevitable fact of death, the raw pain of a mother who has lost the baby she barely had. Reva has known these things. She has been the viewer. The viewer is the artist. The artist is Reva Brooks. The art is ageless.


Lauren Carter is a writer who makes her home in Peterborough, Ontario. She has finished one as-of-yet unpublished novel and is currently at work on the biography of Reva Brooks. She can be reached at


Born in Toronto, Canada, May 1913. Married Canadian artist Leonard Brooks in October 1935. Canadian citizen, resident in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico since July 1947.

Solo exhibitions
2001 Ottawa, Canada, Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography
1998 Toronto, Canada Stephen Bulger Gallery
1997 Aguascalientes, Mexico, Casa Cultural, Retrospective
1997 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Centro Cultural Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 50 year Retrospective
1995 Guanajuato, Mexico, Museo Casa Diego Rivera,
1972 Toronto, Canada, Royal Ontario Museum
1972 New York, New York, Lincoln Center, Photographs of Mexico and Documentary Music Theme
1972 Guanajuato, Mexico, Universidad de Guanajuato
1972 Aguascalientes, Mexico, Casa de Cultura
1972 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Centro Cultural Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes,
1970 Mexico D.F., Mexico, Palacio de Bellas Artes 1970 San Antonio, Texas, Witte Museum
1970 Mexico D.F., Mexico, Anglo-Mexican Institute
1970 Santa Barbara, California, Museum of Art

Group exhibitions
1998 Kingston, Canada, The Edward Day Gallery,
The works of Leonard and Reva Brooks
1981 Windsor, Canada, Windsor Art Gallery,
Art for All
1976 San Francisco, California,
San Francisco Museum of the Arts, Women in Photography
1967 Montreal, Canada, Expo 1967,
The Camera as Witness / Regards sur la terre des hommes 1962 Versailles, France, Grands Photographes de Notre Temps
1961 Paris, France, Biblioth"que Nationale
Salon International du Portrait Photographique
1956 Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth College
1955 New York, New York, Museum of Modern Art,
Family of Man
1949 London, Canada, London Art Gallery

Selected Bibliography
Aperture 1952
U.S. Camera Annual
Canadian Art spring 1950, vol.7 no. 3
City and Country Home, March 1990, Volume 9/number 2,
The Canadian Art Colony in San Miguel de Allende
Portfolio 2,
Friends of Photography, Carmel, California 1972
Modern Photography
Family of Man
Point de Vue, D'Art et Image, Mexico
Enciclopedia del Sapere, Milan, Italy

BibliothAque Nationale, Paris
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, M"xico D.F.
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography
David Alfaro Siquieros, Mexico D.F.
Rufino Tamayo, M"xico D.F.
Rico Lebrun, Los Angeles, California
John Huston, Ireland
Mackinley Helm, Santa Barbara, California
Ayala and Samuel J. Zacks, Toronto
Helen Hayes, New York
Kate Simon, New York
Henry Miller, California
Freeman Tovell, Ottawa
and many other private collections

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