Currently, throughout the city center of Cusco, you will find large format photos taken by Martin Chambi (1891-1973). The images are placed at the exact spot that Chambi took them in the mid-20th century. Chambi was an indigenous photographer from Peru, born in Coaza, on the north of Lake Titicaca. He is considered one of the great figures of photography and was a member of the Cusco School of Photography.
Chambi is known for his photos that portray the Peruvian population. Not just the indigenous people, but also the population in general. His photos show a profound biological and ethnic testimony. He was always looking to learn more about the craft of photography and learn from other photographers. He spent a long period of his life in Cusco. Therefore many of his photos were shot in the Inca Capital.
Martin Chambi was born in a family of Quechua farmers in the late 19th century. Poor as he was, he decided to look for a job. When he was 14 he left his birth ground to work in a gold mine in Carabaya in the jungle. This is where he first got in touch with photography. There were English photographers working for the Santo Domingo mining company. This is when Chambi decided to make a living as a photographer. In 1908, when he was 17, he moved to Arequipa. Here, photography was more developed and many known photographers were trying to create their own style in this city.
The social and cultural context for Chambi could not have been better. The interest of tourists for the region was growing and archaeological discoveries took place (Machu Picchu was (re)discovered in 1911). Chambi saw modern technologies emerge in the area and he saw the local economy grow, driven by increased trade. He was fascinated by all the movement and changes and this can be seen in his works.
Although he wasn’t the only photographer in Cusco in those days, seen his background as poor Quechua boy, he was definitely unique. Many photographers were drawn to Cusco because of all the changes in economy, culture and society. Photography in Cusco in the early 20th century was a sign of modernity just like the emerging railroad, the motorcycle, automobile and airplane, whose arrival has been faithfully documented by Chambi. There is a famous photo in which he captured the first air flight from Cusco’s airport Velasco Astete. Chambi can be seen as a documentary photographer.
In 1936 Chambi was quoted saying:
“ 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.”
Critics divide his work in two different groups. On the one hand his commercial work: commissioned portraits, studio work and outdoor work. On the other hand his anthropological work that include characteristic portraits of mainly Andean people, his photos of local traditions and his numerous photos of Cusco and it’s archaeological treasures.
It should be mentioned that, despite the efforts of the photographer himself to spread his work (exhibitions in Lima and abroad) he failed to remain in the memory of the people of his country. That changed a few years ago. After his death in 1973, his work has been studied, appreciated and admired at international exhibitions. In the mid-1990s his work was exhibited at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain, and most recently, in November 2001, in Paris, France, at the Cervantes Institute. Nowadays, just the name of Martin Chambi is enough to remind the Peruvians of his stunning images.