Through Jim’s travels and connections in Peru over the past many years, he became aware of indigenous photographer Martin Chambi. Chambi has an amazing story: he was born in 1891 into a Quechua-speaking peasant family in one of the poorest regions of Peru. When his father went to work at a gold mine on a small tributary in a nearby province, Chambi went along and happened to learn the rudiments of photography from the mine photographer. This encounter sparked an interest in photography for him that led him to move to Arequipa in 1908 and serve as an apprentice in the studio of Max T. Vargas, and then to eventually establish his own studio in 1917.
Jim became aware that members of Chambi’s family are maintaining an archive of Chambi’s work in Cusco and has made a few attempts over the years at trying to contact the administrator of the archive, Chambi’s grandson Teo Chambi. On this trip, we were fortunate that Teo Chambi was in town and available and we were able to go and meet with him, hear stories of his grandfather’s life and experience as a photographer, and see the amazing trove of items that are being preserved.
If you’ve traveled in or read about Peru, particularly the Cusco region, you’ve probably seen at least one of Chambi’s photographs at one point or another. He was a pioneer in the subject matter of the people and landscapes of the Cusco region; many of his photographs of indigenous people and the Inca ruins throughout the Sacred Valley, including Machu Picchu, were the first of their kind that many had seen.
What makes his work all the more impressive (at least to a photography novice like me) is that at the time he began his career, photography was a newer art (or science) involving glass plates, chemicals (like nitric acid), and lots of other heavy equipment. For example, when Chambi visited a site like Machu Picchu, we would have with him a maximum of 30 glass plates for 30 photographs; very different than how we approach photography today with our digital cameras and iPhones, taking as many pictures as we want and deleting the ones we don’t like. He would have had 30 chances to get the ‘right’ shot. Such a different approach at such a different time. From his work, it’s evident that 30 was plenty, but amazing to think about the time and preparation that probably went into each shot when such a limited number were available. What has also struck me looking at his work is that despite how much set-up and preparation may have been involved, many of his subjects and the subject matter still seem to be captured in their natural state. Even in the posed, formal shots, he captures so much of the spirit and character of his subjects. His body of work is beautiful, and definitely work looking into (much is available on the archive website) if you are interested in Peru and the Cusco region.
Our visit to the archive wasn’t something the kids would put at the top of their favorites list, but even for the first 45 minutes of the 1 1/2 meeting, they were very busy looking through the books featuring his work and the examples around the studio. Very fun and interesting to get off the beaten tourist track (even a little further!) and get introduced to and more familiar with such an amazing artist.
This is a photograph of Martin Chambi, his wife, and their 6 children, including our host’s mom, second from the right in the checkered dress.
A basketball team in Cusco:
The archive meeting room, and coffee table FILLED with wonderful books of Chambi’s and other artists’ work:
We even got to pose against a re-creation of the backdrop that was used in many of Chambi’s studio portraits:
There will be an exhibition of Chambi’s work at the SF Moma in 2017, so Bay Area friends can see his work firsthand.
So many unique adventures in such a relatively short trip! We’re feeling very fortunate (and sometimes tired!) and excited to come home soon and share more tales of our travels with everyone in person.
Tchau for now!
All of us!