Martín Chambi

Martín Chambi was born in 1891 near Lake Titicaca in Peru. He created most of his photographic work in Cuzco—a city whose name in Quechua means “navel of the world”—where he died in 1973. In last year’s large retrospective in Madrid, what stood out was the human quality of his portraits. A striking example, uniting Chambi’s ethnographic concerns with a more personal and subjective dimension, is Autorretrato en portada inka, Machu Picchu, Cusco (Self-Portrait at an Inca Door, Machu Picchu, Cuzco), 1934. Leaning on the opening of one of the many trapezoidal entrances to the stone architectural site—at that time still little-known after its discovery in 1911—the photographer poses with a serious and restrained gaze. He is dressed in a poncho with traditional Inca patterns, symbolizing his identification with his country’s ancient inhabitants. Chambi’s treatment of Peru’s Indians, a disadvantaged segment of society far removed from the comfortable criollo classes, reveals a respect uncommon at that time. In his photographs his Indian subjects appear proud despite their low social status in a hierarchical and stratified country. This is evident in his Campesino de Calca, Cusco (Peasant from Calca, Cuzco), 1926, in which a man, staring into the distance, bears the haughty look of a bullfighter.

Trained in Arequipa, Peru, by photographer Max T. Vargas, who was well acquainted with European photography, Chambi opened his own studio in Cuzco in 1920. He sold photographs to newspapers in Peru and even to some abroad, in Argentina and the United States. His work eventually aroused the interest of Irving Penn, who in 1948 rented Chambi’s studio in order to produce his own photographs of Indians and children in Cuzco. Chambi earned his living by making postcards and executing commissioned portraits for wealthy clients, whom he sometimes depicted with irony, as if they were putting on airs. His range of interests was wide, and, unlike his German near-contemporary August Sander, he did not simply group individuals according to social class or trade. Portraits aside, he shows the Incan archaeological past and Spanish colonial architecture as well as popular religious ceremonies and the stunningly beautiful Andean landscape.

In truth, however, Chambi was most interested in those whom he called “my people”: the mostly barefoot peasants whom he photographed against the Andean landscape, the sad-faced woman in Vendedora de Chicha en Quiquijana (Chicha-Seller in Quiquijana), 1930—chicha is a corn-based alcoholic beverage—whom he depicts without resorting to an aestheticization of poverty. His art was not militantly pro-Indian, but his decision to bring Indians into his studio was a statement at a time in Peru when skin color was directly correlated with economic status. Aware that no Indian would be able to pay for one of his photographs, Chambi nonetheless produced such wonderful portraits as Gigante de Paruro, Juan de la Cruz Sihuana, Cusco (Giant from Paruro, Juan de la Cruz Sihuana, Cuzco), 1925, and Campesina de Q’eromarca con niño, Cusco (Peasant Woman from Q’eromarca with Child), 1934, both taken in his studio. Today, when the modern canon is being revised and Western influence on other cultures questioned, Chambi is more relevant than ever.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.