eye | BLOG: Book of the Week: Selected by Edward Ranney

book review Martin Chambi: Photography Photographs by Martin Chambi Reviewed by Edward Ranney “This publication of the photographs of Martín Chambi in the Jan Mulder Collection, Lima, is a welcome addition to the books devoted to this photographer from Cuzco, who lived from 1891 to 1973…”


Martin Chambi: Photography
Photographs by Martin Chambi

Editorial RM, 2022. 194 pp., 170 illustrations, 9½x11¼x¾”.

This publication of Martín Chambi’s photographs in the Jan Mulder Collection, Lima, is a welcome addition to the books dedicated to this Cusco photographer, who lived from 1891 to 1973. This beautifully printed collection of over one hundred photographs is organized in three sections: The first thirty photographs are devoted to Inca archaeological sites, including twenty at Machu Picchu. A second group, also of thirty images, is mainly focused on well-selected views of Cuzco. The third sequence is then devoted to mainly portrait work, fifteen of these images being self-portraits.

Particular attention was paid to the production of the book. Many vintage prints are reproduced with the warm tones associated with the materials used in the early 20th century, when most Chambi images were made. This strategy is particularly successful in the rendering of its large views of Machu Picchu and Cuzco. Credit to Mr. Mulder for choosing to highlight these well-chosen vintage works, and to the publisher, Editorial RM, for committing the necessary resources to give readers the pleasure of seeing these early prints. in appropriate persuasive tones.

Chambi is cited as being particularly concerned with making the legacy of Inca remains known to the general public through his photographs. This book emphasizes his personal, even spiritual, identification with the heritage of the Inca culture. But an equally strong case should be made for his commitment to documenting the Quechua culture of which he was a part. He began serious documentation of indigenous life in the early 1920s, supported in part by his role as graphic correspondent for Lima’s publications la Crónica and Variedades. Over the next thirty years, he continued to photograph the Quechua natives, their villages and their festivals throughout the Cusco region. These images constitute a unique and irreplaceable archive of the Quechua culture of Peru, and much remains to be done to organize and publish them. Unfortunately, only a few ethnographic views appear in this book, so that a very important aspect of Chambi’s work and personal life is only briefly referenced.

An unusual aspect of Chambi’s archive presented in this book, however, is a selection of self-portraits he made throughout his life. It has been known for some time that he took great interest and pride in not only recording his expeditions, exhibitions, studio work and gatherings, but also in portraying his own personality and personal activities. In the book’s final essay, Horacio Fernandez examines Chambi’s self-portrait in the context of an engaging and knowledgeable discussion of his life and work. He explains how many of Chambi’s self-portraits were staged and executed with precision, how some required a collaborator, and how some highlighted important aspects of his personality. Fernandez writes, “As we have seen, he synthesized his life story as a pilgrimage in search of Quechua culture in contemporary life, colonial fusions, and Inca ruins. In addition to these themes, there were also the characters, the roles – traveler, explorer, Indian – that he played in front of the camera in other self-portraits.

Juxtaposed with some revealing examples of Chambi’s commercial studio work and some ethnographic images, these self-portraits give us a vibrant sense of Chambi himself and his relationship to the world in which he lived and worked. Fernandez also touches on important questions, such as our contemporary impulse to set an artist’s agenda based on just a few select images. He captured the need to distinguish Chambi’s work from that of his contemporaries, notably his colleague Juan Manuel Figueroa Aznar, with whom he worked at Machu Picchu in 1928. Almost all of their photographs published in the 1934 book Historic Cusco, for example, were reproduced without author attribution, resulting in a confusing scenario for understanding each photographer’s work. Nor is he shy about discussing the cultural complexities associated with the now well-known images of indigenous Cusco subjects by famed New York portrait painter and fashion photographer Irving Penn, who briefly worked in a rented studio in Cusco in 1948.

Other text in this book provides additional informative background, but almost every page of text is marred by a design strategy in which a number of words ending a paragraph are not aligned with the left text margin. The appearance of these words, centered and floating under blocks of text, is both confusing and unattractive. Mulder’s introductory text describes his growing fascination as a collector for the preservation and understanding of Chambi’s work and Peru’s photographic heritage. Andres Garay de Chambi’s assessment as a “tailor-made Cusco photographer” gives us an authoritative summary of Chambi’s early career in Arequipa and his early successful work when settling in Cusco. As one of Peru’s leading photographic historians, Garay’s commitment to investigating Chambi’s work and early 20th-century Peruvian photography exemplifies the type of serious research into the country’s photographic history that was sorely lacking. The contribution of the Ecuadorian writer François Laso, “The silent progress of photography by Martín Chambi”, does not correspond to the qualities of the other two essays, but offers an appreciative look at different aspects of Chambi’s work seen from a neighboring Andean country.

The images, of course, are the enduring reason for this post, and the layout and tonal quality of the prints will command attention on many visits. In particular, the four-page leaflet of Chambi’s magnificent panorama of Machu Picchu, made around 1940 with two joined glass plates of 18 x 24 cm, is particularly impressive, and even if it is slightly cropped at the top of the image, it is a remarkable, unprecedented achievement in the publication of Chambi’s work.

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© Krista Elrick

Edouard Ranney visited Peru in 1961 and returned on a Fulbright scholarship in 1964-65 to study literature and anthropology. Fascinated by the landscapes and archaeological sites he saw, he traded his university studies for photography and returned to photograph in Peru for more than 60 years. His stunning large-format photographs of famous and little-known Inca sites, earlier Chimú architecture, and the mysterious Nazca Lines evoke a sense of beauty and a new awareness of time.

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