For more than twenty years, Martín Chambi balanced his successful studio business with extensive travels outside of Cuzco to photograph archaeological sites, landscapes, and indigenous communities.
Chambi's early reputation was based on his participation in two distinctly different photographic traditions. His adoption of conventions derived from European art photography, particularly the stylized effects of Pictorialism and natural sky-light in studio portraiture, formed the foundation for his studio's commercial success and his prominence in local salon competitions and industrial fairs of the day.
Chambi quickly came to the forefront in the documentation of his own indigenous culture. He undoubtedly received significant support and encouragement in this work from members of Cuzco's Indigenista movement. In turn, his work and presence, as an artist of direct Indian descent, photographing their meetings and listening to their discussions, surely reaffirmed their intellectual programs and lent a sense of visual authenticity to the movement.
Between 1920 and 1950 Chambi amassed a comprehensive collection of archaeological sites, native peoples, and views of Cuzco that was widely published as well as presented throughout South America.
Many of the most fascinating pictures in his archive were apparently unknown during his lifetime - some because they fell outside the interests of Indigenismo, others because of the limited artistic conventions then in vogue, and many because of their commercial origin.
Significant ongoing research and publication on this unusual period still need to be realized in order to clarify Chambi's artistic contribution in the world of photography.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF A NEO-INDIGENOUS ARTIST
Chambi was an Indigenist photographer -- the first to photograph his people as seen through their own eyes. Chambi himself emphasized that status in 1936, on the occasion of an exhibition in Santiago and Viña del Mar:
“I have read that in Chile it is thought that Indians have no culture, that they are uncivilized, that they are intellectually and artistically inferior when compared to whites and Europeans. More eloquent than my opinion, however, are graphic testimonies. It is my hope that impartial and objective witnesses will examine this evidence. I feel that I am a representative of my race; my people speak through my photographs.”
Martín Chambi Jimenez, a Puneño of native descent, was the first to photograph his race with a postcolonial eye. When Martín Chambi arrived in Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital, the richest and most splendid among American pre-Columbian cities, was experiencing a slight demographic recovery following the dramatic population decline.
It was Chambi who had the greatest international diffusion, and he who has left us the most personal, magical, profound, and dazzling work among all Peruvian photographers and maybe of all Latin American photographers.
Martín Chambi's images laid bare the social complexity of the Andes. Those images place us in the heart of highland feudalism, in the haciendas of the large landholders, with their servants and concubines, in the colonial processions of contrite and drunken throngs. Chambi's photographs capture it all: the weddings, fiestas, and first communions of the well-to-do; the drunkenness and poverty of the poor along with the public events shared by both. That is why, surely without intending it, Chambi became in effect the symbolic photographer of his race, transforming the telluric voice of Andean man, his millenary melancholy, his eternal neglect, his quintessentially Peruvian, human, Vallejo-like pain into the truly universal.
“One day Chambi will be recognized as one of the most coherent and profound creators photography has given this century.”