It was the Indian Chief that caught my eye, and the irony that a pureblood native Peruvian was riding it in Cuzco in 1934. There’s always a story behind such a photo, as not may Native (South) Americans are photographed on motorcycles in the first half of the 20th Century: large motorcycles were an expensive luxury, so this fellow must have been successful.

Martin Chambi with his c.1925 Indian Scout on the streets of Cuzco, Peru. [MartinChambi.org]
So Martin Chambi proved to be, extraordinarily so, both in his own lifetime and beyond, as a chronicler of the people of Peru for over 50 years, in a stunning body of work that’s been celebrated from MoMA to National Geographic. Martin Chambi was born a peasant in 1891 (Nov 5 – a Scorpio) near Lake Titikaka. His father worked in a gold mine for the Santo Domingo Mining Company, where young Martin first encountered a photographer documenting the mine in 1905. This inspired a move to Arequipa, where he became a pupil and studio assistant to photographer Max T. Vargas, where he learned the trade.  His obvious talent led to his first exhibition at the Arts Center of Arequipa in 1917. He was then 26, married to Manuela Lopéz Visa, and had two children, Celia and Victor, and chose to move shortly after to Sicuani, where he opened his own photographic studio.

Portrait of a native man wearing a typical Andean chullo knit cap. [Martin Chambi]
Sicuani was then a prosperous town as center of industrial production of alpaca and llama wool, and Chambi’s studio was successful enough to prompt a move to Cusco in 1920, where he opened a new studio, and had three more children – Julia (a photographer who became the Chambi archivist), Angelica, Manuel, and Meri. He remained in Cusco for the rest of his life, where he developed his huge body of work, and was able to explore the breadth and depth of the Peruvian people and their culture.

A wedding party emerges from the candle-lit darkness of a church in Cuzco. [Martin Chambi]
As well as a portraitist and visual ethnographer, he worked as a photojournalist for the Peruvian newspaper La Croníca, and for newspapers and magazines around the world, such as Variedades y Mundial, La Nacíon (Buenos Aires), and the Feb 1934 National Geographic. His work was exhibited in art galleries in La Paz in 1925, Santiago de Chile in 1936, and finally at MoMa in New York in 1979, after an effort was organized by his son Victor to have his archive of 30,000 glass and film negatives preserved in association with volunteers from the EarthWatch Foundation, under the direction of photographer and anthropologist Edward Ranney.

Martin Chambi at Macchu Picchu, which was ‘re-discovered’ (and plundered) in the 1860s/70s, after laying hidden for nearly 300 years. The Spanish never found it, so unlike most Inca cities, it remained unmolested. [Martin Chambi]
Of his luminous body of work, Martin Chambi said:

“I have read that in Chile they think that the Indians have no culture, that they are uncivilized and intellectually and artistically inferior to white people and European people. I think the graphical evidence proves different. It is my hope that an impartial and objective group examines this proof. I feel I am a representative of my race; my people speak through my photographs.”

An pedal-organ player in an acoustically friendly niche. [Martin Chambi]

Chambi’s photographs are a window into a seemingly magical lost world of Andean Indians still living near the ruins of their ancient, magnificent civilization, who seem not to have been bowed by the colonization of their lands, but exist with a unique identity within a new context. There are giants, grand structures, amazingly dressed locals, organ players, miners, potato farmers, ordinary children, policemen, and of course Chambi himself, who projects a stunning wisdom and warmth. Many of his earliest photos (6000 of them) are on glass plate negatives, and glow with detail (the silver-saturated collodion used to coat glass plates capture far more detail than gelatin film stock, as the plates are larger, and the silver particles 1000X smaller).

A native boy in warm clothing. [Martin Chambi]
The lenses used in Chambi’s large-format bellows cameras of the 1920s and ‘30s were already antiques, and the softness of the images they produce is more visually akin to the work of Edward Curtiss than August Sander. Curtiss was an outsider looking in on Native American culture in the early 1900s, and August Sander (working in the late 1920s/30s) was a peer of the Germans he famously photographed in their working attire, while Chambi was the Native American insider looking deeper inside his own culture, with a warm and loving eye that eluded both his obvious photographic parallels.  But Chambi had a poet’s eye, and his images are imbued with mystery and depth, suggesting a world we cannot know but will be endlessly fascinated watching.

Here Chambi addresses the camera directly from his Indian – one of very few motor vehicles on the roads in Cuzco. [Martin Chambi]
I’ve only seen two Chambi photographs of himself on his Indian, in the same location but at different times. The motorcycle must have been a treasure and a source of tremendous pride, as there are very few vehicles of any kind on Cusco’s roads in his photos. He photographed very few vehicles, at least, and that he chose to photograph only himself with a vehicle was a warmly humorous message, ‘owning’ the questionable branding of a North American capitalist enterprise as a badge of success, and identity: an Indian on the move.

‘Two Giants’. [Martin Chambi]
A woman in typical Peruvian dress. [Martin Chambi]
The family of Ezequiel Arce with their potato crop. [Martin Chambi]
A man carrying a ceramic pot. This is likely an early glass plate image, as the collodion process is sensitive to the UV spectrum, which makes skin with a high melanin content appear as shiny black, much like the photos of Edward Curtiss. [Martin Chambi]
A costume party. [Martin Chambi]
The empty streets of Cuzco, a combination of Spanish colonial and adapted Inca stonework. [Martin Chambi]
A reed-built boat on Lake Titicaca, in the shape of a tiger. [Martin Chambi]
For more information and photos, visit the Martin Chambi Archive here.

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