The remote nation in which Martín Chamhi was born has produced no more than a half-dozen creators whose works can be admired independently of national pride (which inflates artistic reputations to the point of skewing the scale of values) and as products of a broad and unimpaired vision of humankind, works that enrich universal experience.

This master of photography is one of those few. Unlike other members of this extremely exclusive club-for example, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and César Vallejo, most of whose works were written outside Peru in surroundings richer and more stimulating than our own for literary and artistic creation-Chamhi achieved his monumental work (still to be catalogued, but apparently consisting of some thirty thousand negatives) in a province in the Peruvian sierra, rising above the limitations inherent in his situation through the gifts of vigor, imagination, skill-and genius!

To say that Chambi was a pioneer is true, but insufficient. The work he left us-in its originality, its penetration into the soul of a world, and its visual richness-is valuable for more than having been the key to Peruvian photography’s international recognition.

Chamhi was born in 1891 in a village on the Puno plateau, the child of a campesino family. A felicitous happenstance led him while still a boy to work in a mine in the high country near Carabaya; that was undoubtedly where (in the hands of a mine employee) he saw a camera for the tirst time. The encounter had invaluable consequences for the young boy’s life and for the history of photography in Peru, which until then had been no more than a trade, a technical operation, but which with Chambi would begin to be research and inspiration, intuition and amhition: that is, creation… that is, art.

In Arequipa, in the studio of a well-known local photographer-the Max T. Vargas studio where all the middle-and upperclass families of the White City came to be photographed-Cambi had his professional initiations. But his career caught fire in Cuzco, where he moved in the early 1920s and where until the 1950s, when his creative energy was fading (although he lived until 1973), his creative talent would evolve.

We can say of his searching eye that it drank in everything, and of his cutiosity that it was inexhaustible, leading him to explore from  tip to toe and from end to end that small province so intensely imbued with history and social drama; tirelessly, he exploded the poswer fhash of his ancient and cumbersome apparatus, the glass-plate camera he used to perform miracles in his studio, and in the streets and parks, towns, Indian communities, fairs, valleys, and mountains of his land.

It is dangerous to dwell too long on the documentary value lof his photographs. They do have that quality, but they are as much witness to Chambi himself as to the milieu in which he lived and, more than the picturesqueness, cruelt, tenderness, and absurdity of his time and of the Andean world, they record the sensitivity, malice, and skill of the modest artisan who when he stood behind the camera became a giant, a true Promethean forcé recreating life.

Without doubt, Martín Chambi’s images laid bare all the social complexity of the Andes. Those images place us int ehe 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, and in the smoky cbicherías another illustrious resident of Cuzco of those years, Uriel García, called “the caves of the nation”. Chambi’s photographs capture it all: the weddings, fiestas, and first communions of the well-to-do, and the drunkenness  and  poverty of the poor, along with the public events shared by both-sports, paseos, dances, bullfights, the latest diversions and solemn rites that campesinos have celebrated since the beginning of time. Of Martín Chambi it is enough to say that in those thirty-some years ot photographing, there was no corner of the Cuzco universe he did not appropriate or immortalize.

The world Chambi photographed so indefatigably, however, he also transformed. He placed his own personal seal upon it, a grave order, a ceremonious and somewhat ironic air, an inmobility that has touches of the disturbing and the eternal. Sad and harsh-but also, when not pathetic or tragic, comic- the world of Martín Chambi is always beautiful; it is a world in which even the extremes of neglect, discrimination, and vassalage have been humanized and dignified by clarity of vision and elegance of treatment.

“Stepmother to her children”, the Inca Garcilaso wrote of Peru. In the case of Martín Chambi, one of the greatest artists born of her soil, that has been true. An ungrateful stepmother, and forgetful, to the degree that few of Chambi’s compatriots know who he was or why he should he remembered and admired. We must therefore be grateful that in other parts of the world Chambi is being discovered and justly appreciated. I do not have the least doubt that one day Chambi will be recognized as one of the most coherent and profound creators photography has given this century.

 

Mario Vargas Llosa