Photo Essays

The Trailblazing Peruvian Photographer Who Captured a Vanishing World

Dois gigantes cusquenhos, 1925
Martín Chambi, “Two Giants from Cusco” (1925) (all images courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)

In 1905, when the Andean photographer Martín Chambi was 14 years old, he traveled to northwestern Peru with his father, who had a job working in a gold mine there. At the time, there were no indigenous photographers in the country, and images of the Quechua people were mostly captured through the lenses of French and American photographers. But after meeting the photographer for his father’s mining company, Chambi became enamored with the camera. He soon apprenticed himself to Max T. Vargas — one of the earliest Peruvian photographers — and a legend was born.

“I’ve read that in Chile they think that the indigenous South American peoples have no culture, that they are not civilized, that they are intellectually and artistically inferior to European white peoples,” he wrote in 1936, long after he’d become a celebrated Peruvian photographer. “[My] artworks are a graphic testament that is more eloquent than my own opinion … I feel I am representing my race; my people will speak through the photographs.”

Chambi is most famous for his expressive, painterly portrayals of Peru’s diverse society, some of which are currently on view at São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles in Face Andina – Fotografias de Martín Chambi. The exhibition builds on the museum’s recent acquisition of 88 of Chambi’s images and spans the breadth of his prolific, five-decades-long career, during which he produced more than 40,000 glass plate negatives. In addition to the portraits, the show includes 23 postcards (Chambi introduced them to the country) as well as panoramas of Machu Pichuu, which he was the first to document after its “discovery” by Hiram Bingham.

“[Chambi’s images] integrate [an] important part of the South American imagination,” the curators write in a press release. “[They are] poetic, mysterious, and incisive documents of a vanished world.”

Autorretrato de Martín Chambi vendo a si mesmo Cusco - Peru, 1923
Martín Chambi, “Self-portrait of Martín Chambi looking at himself, Cusco, Peru” (1923)
Casamento de don Julio Gadea, prefeito de Cusco, 1930
Martín Chambi, “The wedding of Don Julio Gadea, prefect of Cusco” (1930)
Organista na Capela de Tinta, Sicuani, 1935
Martín Chambi, “Organist in the Capela de Tinta, Sicuani” (1935)
Martín Chambi em Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, 1939
“Martín Chambi on Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu” (1939)
Vista panorâmica da Machu Picchu, 1925
Martín Chambi, “Panorama of Machu Picchu” (1925)
Rua Triunfo, Cusco, 1924
Martín Chambi, “Triunfo Street, Cusco” (1924)

Face Andina – Fotografias de Martín Chambi continues at the Instituto Moreira Salles (Rua Piauí, 844, São Paulo, Brazil) through February 22, 2015.

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