In this month’s issue of A.i.A., Desi Gonzalez reports on developments in Peruvian typography for our Atlas column. It’s the second entry in a three-part series, the first of which addressed museum culture in Lima. This article, originally published in the December 1979 issue of the magazine, spotlights indiginous Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi (1891-1973), who expertly and sensitively captured portraits of Andean residents, on the occasion of a 1979 MoMA retrospective.
The photographs of Peruvian Martín Chambi (1891-1973) record all manner of events and rituals, and convey with unexpected intensity the structure and mood of a complex colonial society meeting the 20th century.
Martín Chambi was a Peruvian photographer active in Cuzco from roughly 1920 to the early '50s. His exhibition last spring at the Museum of Modern Art revealed a sensibility as communicative and arresting as that of E. J. Bellocq in New Orleans and Mike Disfarmer in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Working within a more ambiguous community, Chambi also had a longer career and a more searching temperament. Like the others, he practiced as a local and commercial portrait photographer. Like those photographers, too, he observed the conservative rules of his trade and exceeded them. In each case the variety and acuity of Chambi's perceptions enliven the archaic performance of his subjects. Here the details of their dated clothes and behavior become a guarantee that their obvious humanity was bounded by mores as peculiar as our own.
Take Chambi's picture of the Gadea wedding. There's nothing like an old wedding photo to acquaint later viewers with the stiltedness of amateur ceremony and the sappiness of Victorian sentiment. Gazing into this scene at Cuzco, one almost sniffs its inevitably musty odor. The bride's bouquet appears pre-wilted and the cadaverous bridegroom, with his bleached face, top hat, gloved hands, cutaway and pinstripe pants, looks like a worried mortician. In the family group behind the wedding couple, where girls hold the train, someone cranes her head to get into the picture. But this picture lives, disturbingly, because outside the natural light in which the young man and woman huddle, the environment is shrouded in an astonishing murk. Using only available luminosity—either on principle or because there was often no alternative—Chambi sticks to the facts, but creates a dream-like marriage, surrounded by a void.
How did they pluck their eyebrows in Cuzco, or design their courtrooms? To tally these and endless other living arrangements is not yet to speak of social history, but of obscure and trivial facts endlessly generated in the past and retrievable now, partially if at all, only by some hazard: a text, an album or a cache of photographs that accidentally comes to light. A photographer from New Mexico, Ed Ranney, goes to Cuzco in the '60s, to do work on the Inca monuments and highland landscape. On a later visit he becomes friendly with a photographer named Victor Chambi, whose father worked as the town portraitist more than a generation earlier. Martín Chambi had been a local celebrity, the Nadar of Cuzco (as popular but more modest), still remembered by neighbors but virtually unknown outside Peru. The younger men decide to organize and restore the archive of the older one.
This event takes place in 1975. Two years later, under the auspices of Earthwatch, an organization designed to further scientific exploration, a team of 10 North Americans led by Ranney descends on Cuzco to clean, file, and print from the 14,000 negatives (mostly 5-by-7 and 8-by-10-inch glass plates) in the Chambi studio. Made by Ranney, the images we now see demonstrate that more was at stake in their restitution than the visual memory of past customs. We should have been happy to get clear, non-evaluating documentary returns, such as those of Florence by the Alinari, or of Harlem by James Van Der Zee. Chambi, however, not only respected his reality, he shaped it as well. He analyzed its tensions. He was a contemporary historian, at least by instinct, and not solely a record-maker.
The stereotypical Peru is a mountainscape sprouting llamas and "natives" in their ragged clothes and shawls. Their heads are snug under picturesque bonnets or fedoras as they carry on at market. Of course there would have to be moldering Inca fortifications and fabulous colonial churches. These tourist stereotypes, seconded by thousands of their kind, remain unchallenged even now, though Chambi's very different assessment might work to change them.
The Inca past, the Hispanic overlay, and the Indian life of his time certainly figure in Chambi's photographs, minus the llamas. They occupy a large place in his output more by virtue of his alert consciousness of his environment than as a market response. He was among the earliest to have done real photographic justice to Machu Picchu (discovered by Hiram Bingham only in 1911). We also have pictures from his studio that are the first to describe the habits and regalia of outlying mountain communities. These turn out to be rare images, their subjects apparently not willing to be photographed except by one who spoke the Quechua language and was of their own race. A good deal more is therefore involved in this photographic campaign than ethnographic curiosity. Beyond their reserve, a certain pride animates the faces of these mountaineers, as if encouraged by a traveler whose origins and social footing had once been similar to their own.
Chambi, in fact, had been born the son of a campesino, in Coaza, Puno province, in 1891. By exceptional good fortune he learned the elements of his trade from a photographer in a British gold mining company. After further training in Arequipa he eventually settled in Cuzco, whose commercial promise and cultural history, as the capital of the once great Inca empire, strongly attracted him. Traveling widely in this and other regions for several years, he participated in the rise of indigenista consciousness which had come to Peru in the '20s, later and more falteringly than it had to Mexico. There can be no question of Chambi nostalgically memorializing a civilization on the verge of disappearance, as was true of Curtis and Vroman in our Southwest. More than 90 percent of Peru's inhabitants were of Indian stock. They were not slated to dwindle away. But those of the sierra lacked an understanding of their heritage, while their sense of cultural identity, as viewed by the power structure and coastal society, was hardly a positive one.
There were ample reasons for this pejorative self-image. Within only a century after Pizarro's conquest, six-sevenths of the Indian population of the country had been wiped out. Denied their legal and human rights, the Indians continued to be neglected, wasted and exploited right on through the 1950s and '60s. The dictator Augusto Leguia (1919-30) forced many, as indentured laborers, to build penetration roads from the coast to the interior. The hacienda owners employed them as a practically wageless work force kept on a sub-subsistence economic level from which there was no appeal. Only in 1920 did a new constitution recognize the legal existence of the indigenous communities, followed somewhat later by the reluctant establishment of a do-nothing section of Indian affairs. And only in 1930 was property ownership removed as a requirement for the vote, allowing a few small farmers the franchise provided they were also literate in Spanish. These developments were not calculated to dissolve the stigma of the Indian as a non-person. Cuzco, 50 years ago, was a typical provincial center of judicial corruption, economic repression and mestizo domination.
The town also happened to breed folklorists, artists, intellectuals and radicals. An academy of art and the Peruvian Communist party were founded there. Many, perhaps most of the people in these circles, were Chambi's friends and peers. One of the closest, José Uriel Garcia, published a book titled El Nuevo Indio, a call for cultural resurgence. The link between polemics on this front and dissident politics can be seen in the formation in 1924 of the APRA party (Alianza Popular Revolucionario Americana), by Haya de la Torre. Haya originally emphasized indigenista goals for Peru, quite in line with his anti-Yankee attitudes and his program for nationalization of the land. But in order to build party strength, he had to appeal more to the coastal proletariat than to the plantation workers and the obviously unorganized Andean villagers. There is some reason to think that Chambi sympathized with APRA goals.
The audience of the Marxist José Carlos Mariategui, who issued a harsh diatribe against the hacienda system (Seven Interpretive Essays on the Peruvian Reality, 1928), must have been confined to a few educated radicals. In contrast, those who paid for the work of Chambi came mostly from the bourgeoisie, who were happy to have it for family or civic reasons. Working within that society and across its divisions, Chambi portrayed its class strata, its hopes of upward mobility, and its relations with the "lower orders."
A group shot of a hacienda court shows not only its staff, but musicians with their fifes and tambours, clowns, highlanders, troops, a religious brotherhood, and either the straw boss or owner and his white family, conspicuous in this amazing throng. Whatever the occasion that drew them together, the image acts as an institutional medley of types and power interactions. Beyond being blessed, as every group photo should be, by the phenomenon of its subjects posing "in uniform," the frame is marvelously dense, yet informal.
This same kind of orchestration he applied to other, more integrated crowds, such as an outing of the Guardia Civil at Sacsayhuaman, the Inca citadel dominating Cuzco, in 1930. These National Police are in a relaxed affectionate mood. The wave of smiling faces seems to be sucked in towards a pass in the ancestral masonry. To have gotten them all to respond with such fresh sweetness and swagger implies a considerable charm on the part of the photographer. (Chambi was expert in posing people al fresco, on sloping grassy ground, as they propped their feet on rocks or found little humps on which to sit.) The upbeat character of the scene may also have something to do with the fact that the military provided one of the very few access routes for the peasantry to attain higher social status. The privileges they were accorded arose out of the increased nationalism of the new Cerro regime, so that the rhetorics of state and ethnic solidarity, here at least, could coincide.
In the town proper was displayed a more mundane authority which Chambi studied. Large landowners, housed in Cuzco, maintained control over political officials in the district capital of Pisaq and other villages. By these ties they continued to activate a virtually feudal system which demanded free labor and farm goods from the campesinos, as well as the donation of personal services in their town homes. The hacendados overlorded marketing of agricultural products, too, and paid far below the set prices offered farmers in communities. (See William Whyte and Giorgio Alberti's Power, Politics and Progress: Social Change in Peru, New York, 1976, p. 27.) Additionally, through a network of vendors, the Indians were obliged to buy from the hacendados at inflated levels. If there were inconvenient disturbances about such issues, that same civil guard whom Chambi showed enjoying itself above the town was available to put them down. What is more, peasant leaders had an unlucky habit of meeting with fatal accidents.
With his clear, natural illumination streaming down from a skylight, Chambi shoots six campesinos, cringing under their ponchos as they wait to give testimony in the Cuzco Hall of Justice. The picture reveals their humiliation, entrapment and anxiety. Details such as the bare, gnarled feet on the floral carpet are unforgettable. Though separated by only a yard or two, the clerks at the desk belong to another world. For the moment, Chambi, himself, might have been of this world, a municipal employee.
Often in a more neutral capacity, he fastened on class oppositions. A white-gloved policeman pinches the ear of a small Indian boy, clothed in itchy sacking. The man has the air of an angler showing off his catch. (It's entirely possible that he is symbolizing what policemen are supposed to do, just as drinkers in other Chambi prints make sure they have their bottles with them.) As for the regal bride of the Montes family, she poses in the vestibule of her house, which probably seemed as modest in Cuzco as Garnier's Opera did in Paris. In the shadow to her left sits an old, abject nanny or maid. Far from being accidents or inevitable circumstances, these juxtapositions were made by a comparing mind, and the statement of who's on top and what's on the social bottom is arranged by the photographer with as much blunt deliberation as the innocence with which it is accepted by his subjects.
A similar acceptance crops up in 19th-century photographs in which white colonizers stand prominently among Asiatic underlings. Such ingenuous set-ups were effected by a racist alliance between colonists and photographer, and one senses the camera as the coercive extension of European power.
With Chambi, though, the system of dominance (everyone with their appropriate attributes), is examined from the viewpoint of its human cost. He leaves one in no doubt as to its production of victims. Take away the submissive figure in the two frames just described and they would revert from strong indictment to mere genre.
Yet, by genre work itself—group and individual portraits—Chambi earned most of his living. Through this mode alone he presents a social scene undergoing some very curious transitions. The Franciscan monks with their British patron, Mr. Blysdale, project almost the opposite of the power relations I've just mentioned. While Blysdale is placed at the junction of an inverted wedge of figures and echoing cloister, the nearer monks do more than hold their own. Stern of face and assertive in posture, they seem rooted in their verdant garden. Catholic piety really blossoms in many of Chambi's pictures, such as the plunging shot of the festival at Ayaviri, or the flower-drenched mourning that went on at funeral chapels. A riot of Churrigueresque description frets the graphic play of light and dark in these photographs. I don't think it's wrong to imagine that they could only have been made by a profoundly Hispanic temperament, one whose sense of space can be as elaborate as the interior of a Spanish church.
Yet he documented quite simply the first motorcyclist to have gotten over the cordillera and the arrival of the first aviator, too. They had come from the unimaginable distance of modern technology to this place, this nowhere in which Chambi lived. Instead of commemorating the probe of civilization to "another point"—and therefore of having traveled away, as it did when Chambi took it to the mountains—the camera demonstrates just the opposite. The 20th century is finally shown to have reached "us" …here. Whether the monks were as physically solid off-camera as on, or the cyclist more competent than he seems, no one knows. Chambi's work nonetheless makes it clear that in his locale, ancient ritual co-existed with contemporary behavior. Though it passed for current Western manners, this behavior was neither smoothly practiced nor completely naturalized.
One has the feeling that the Cuzco bourgeoisie is half-involved in a charade of which the roles have not yet been adequately learned. (The Gadea wedding is a good case in point.) Bodies and business suits, for instance, get along uneasily with each other, and there's something off in the tailoring. Above the collar the mestizo shopkeeper is often indistinguishable from the menials that surround him, beneath it he wears his status. A few pretty mestizas have so powdered their faces that they appear almost as if wearing white masks in Chambi's photographs. The great outside culture, from which some goods have trickled in, though with only hints of its style, both fascinates and menaces these townspeople.
Out of date and slightly awkward, if seen on the coast, such gestures firmed up the needed hierarchy at home. One great rank below the mestizos were the cholos, people who had ceased being landless Indians but who still worked essentially as flunkies in town. A still further drop beneath them were the villagers, shepherds and sharecroppers. If a mestizo spoke to a cholo in Quechua, this was meant to be deprecating address. The shock of the new upon the old, and the interweaving of alien with domestic social relations, are implicit in Chambi's unsorted pictorial file.
When they were absorbed in outright impersonation, his subjects only exposed the raw and ill-digested influences that played upon them. Consider a costume party where everyone is decked up as toreadors and gypsies, maitre d's and jesters, with a skeleton and an irrelevant sailor thrown in. It's a carnival of glitz served on a platter of messy streamers. Possibly close to it in time, another costume party was photographed in Louisville—weirdly enough, constructed along similar lines. The same apparent diminution of the stage-like room and concealed bleachers compress the funny people. It's harder to make out the iconography of the North American scene, apart from its rah-rah, cowboy, dead-end kid and plutocratic references. Even so, the Peruvians show themselves to be more confused in all that tinsel. The norms from which the hammy Kentuckians departed are pretty evident and peep out in a dozen places. In contrast, Chambi's sitters are at a loss to convey their fantasies. They don't seem to have had any agreement about everyday decorum, against which they could play off their one-shot extravagance. The image of one of the revelers has been scratched out in the negative and a certain subtle dejection weighs upon the whole gaudy tableau. Which is precisely what makes it so fascinating.
The last outfit they could have been expected to wear at a Cuzco costume party was that of an Indian, exotic to our eyes but demeaningly vernacular to theirs. One of Chambi's most impressive, even awesome photos shows an Indian from Paruro, all seven feet of him, looming up in the bareness of the studio. The coarse material swaddling his giant frame has been rent and patched and torn again in a profusion of holes, from which cloth dribbles like strands of llama wool. No one needs to be told that such rags speak of an existence incomparably less comfortable than in town. At the same time they are irrefutably more authentic, since they function not as an "outfit" at all, but as the weathered, shaggy skin of his being.
In 1948 Irving Penn came to Cuzco, rented a studio like Chambi's, and photographed the rural folk against a plain backdrop. The resulting well-known pictures marked the historical occasion when it became cool to appropriate the images of the helpless and undefended poor from third-world countries into the graphic designs of high fashion. Because he was inventing only a new kind of chic, Penn cannot be said to have had enough sensitivity to be accused of moral turpitude. He created exceedingly more stylish pictures than Chambi, but he was never capable of eliciting and then capturing the crazed, indomitable stance of the Paruro Indian. Two years after Penn's visit, Cuzco was ruined by a gigantic earthquake. It shattered a great many of the contemporary buildings and it tumbled in most of the town's colonial churches. The monolithic Inca walls of the old capital remained standing in perfect condition. Chambi is reported to have despaired at the destruction of his town and his work gradually lost its spirit. He died in 1973.