Barcelona is devoting an exhibition to Martín Chambi, the Peruvian photographer who immortalized the Andes.

ByDavid M. Conte

Mar 31, 2022

If you plan to travel to Barcelona during the Easter holidays, don’t forget to take a walk through the Born, the old fishing district, now one of the most emblematic places in the city, and visit the Colectania Foundation Foto.

Barcelona’s famous contemporary photography center presents from April 1 to June 12 the exhibition ‘Martín Chambi and his contemporaries. The Andes photographed‘, an exhibition devoted to the work of this Peruvian photographer who marked a turning point in Latin American photography in the first half of the 20th century.

Of indigenous origin, Chambi (Coaza, 1891- Cusco, 1973), photographed the Peruvian Andes for years, claiming the pre-Hispanic past through images of Inca ruins and portraits of the life of Andean communities at the beginning of the 20th century. . In this way, Chambi incorporated a new perspective into local photography of the time, proposing a unifying vision of Peru and highlighting the indigenous discourses that were beginning to gain strength in this territory.

The discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 – by the American Hiram Bingham – had a very strong media and scientific resonance at all levels. This happened thanks to the sponsorship in material and human resources of Yale University and the National Geographic Society with its influential The National Geographic Magazine, explain the curators of the exhibition. In 1913, this publication devoted an entire issue to Machu Picchu with more than 240 photographs. In the years that followed, Machu Picchu was noted as an attractive but high-risk destination due to the cliffs, jungle, wildlife, and lack of safe roads.

Martín Chambi, however, took the risk and made his first trip there in 1924 with a small group. If Bingham and his photographers recorded the site for archaeological purposes, it was Chambi who did so aesthetically.

In 1928 a group of Cusqueños – anthropologists, archaeologists, painters, poets, writers, historians, natives, journalists and photographers – arrived at Machu Picchu after overcoming some difficulties and lighting a bonfire on the top of the Huayna Picchu mountain as symbol of local appropriation of one of the marvels of world archaeology. Machu Picchu was the perfect proof to affirm the existence of an ancient civilization – foreign to the West – with human beings able to organize themselves and build monumental constructions.

Martín Chambi was part of this expedition and the fruit of his work left eloquent panoramic views and details of the spaces of the enclosure, without human presence. From this experience, his work enters a new stage where the handling of light, form, space and texture, added to a very particular mode of framing, make him an emblem of contemporary photography and documentary in Peru and Latin America.

MARTÍN CHAMBI El Barrio Oriental de Machu Picchu y, al fondo, el Huayna Picchu. 1928 © Martin Chambi / Collection Jan Mulder

“I feel representative of my race; my people speak through my photographs”, declared the Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi (1891-1973) in response to those who still asserted that “the Indians have no culture, that they are not civilized, that they are intellectually and artistically inferior to whites and Europeans.” And he expressed his hope that eventually “an unbiased and objective attestation will examine this evidence.”

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MAX T. VARGAS Balsas on Lake Titicaca, Puno. California. 1900 © Max T. Vargas / Collection Jan Mulder

In this exhibition, Martín Chambi’s photographs dialogue with works by photographers Irving Penn, Eugene Harris, Werner Bischof, Robert Frank, Pierre Verger, Max T. Vargas, Luigi Gismondi and Manuel Mancilla, among others, who have visited the Andean regions from southern Peru during the same period as Chambi. The confrontation of all these looks broadens the construction of the collective imagination around the millennial Andean culture of this time, while showing the important heritage that marked the photographic production of their predecessors.

The exhibition brings together more than 100 vintage photographs from the Jan Mulder collection, the greatest legacy of original photographs from the time of Martin Chambi.