Martín Chambi’s Portraits: On Beauty and Legacy

Martín Chambi’s Portraits: On Beauty and Legacy

 

In the first half of the twentieth century, Martín Chambi practiced landscape photography and portrait photography, shifted between commissions and his own enamorations, and through this work, found himself in conversation with the two cultural identities of Peru—Spanish and indigenous Peruvians. His photographic legacy is somehow still potent and representative of communities of people born out of tension. Victor Mendivil y El Gigante de Paruro (1925) may be one of Chambi’s most famous works, a simple photograph that exhibits the beauty of both the artist and what he represents. Artist Victor Mendivil stands aside a tall, stout Andean man whose presence and pride overwhelm the shot. It is a timeless photograph, yet still envelops the cultural tension of the moment—and what that meant for indigenous Andean people. 

Mendivil gazes upward with a pout on his face. His eyes stare keenly with bewilderment, fear and respect—the look as crisp and sharp as the clothes he is sporting. Follow the gaze up and you are met with a smile, a smile in which the radiance and almost lightheartedness of the photo permeate. The smile belongs to Juan de la Cruz Sihuana, better known as“El Gigante,” who here looks like the Andean version of the Big Friendly Giant. His smile, juxtaposed with Mendivil’s dramatic, cartoon-esque scowl, reads like a shot from a 1920’s silent movie.

According to Chambi, the photographer’s grandfather encountered “Gigante” at a market, who was drawn by the poise and confidence in which he carried himself.1 De la Cruz’s hand doesn’t just sit atop the shoulder of Mendivil, he caresses it, as if the arm around the shoulder was placed without a thought, naturally, without apprehension. There’s little stiffness of any sort in de la Cruz—he stands comfortably, his other hand holding a chullo, a traditional Andean wool hat with earflaps. Fashion often finds a way to slyly divulge culture and conquering voices. It’s ever-changing, often ignoring tradition and redefining what is considered beautiful. Its fleeting nature suggests an evolution of a sort, an excitement for the new. 

In 1532, the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire. Cusco, the capital of the Empire in the Andean mountains, was swiftly swept of all its resources, as the colonizers made their way south. As colonizers often do, the Spanish spread disease across the country, and more than eighty percent of the indigeous population disappeared within the first century. Throughout Peru, Quechua, the native language, shifted into Spanish, and slacks took reign over the utilitarian bayeta pants. The culture dwindled, only surviving among the few that lived a more pastoral life. Unwavering, chullos and panchos maintained their mark in the fashion of Andean men, elegantly threaded with naturally-dyed thread and indigenous designs, enough to even survive in such communities today. 

Fashion is one of the few traditions the Peruvian indigeous people retained. Victor Mendivil y El Gigante de Paruro was taken in 1925, centuries into the establishment of indigenous and Spanish communities, long enough for the Spanish to have their own cities, overwhelm Peruvian culture and forge their own in the process. It would never be de la Cruz’s image that gives away the time, though; it is Mendivil’s. Without Mendivil, the photo, withstanding technological boundaries, could have been captured hundreds of years prior. 

At the time it was taken, Victor Mendivil y El Gigante de Paruro shows exactly what it meant to be beautiful for both the Spanish and the indigenous people of Peru. On the left, the standard of beauty is evolving, it is fresh and “refined.” On the right, it is antique, a sign of protest and pride. The only tension between the two dwells in Mendivil’s eyes, full of confusion and a hesitant distance—the curiosity is there, but also a fear of the unknown, a fear of something or someone different. 

There is often little tension in Chambi’s work. Instead, the photographs become saturated with the culture of the people, one kind of people, either Spanish or Andean, making his portrait of Mendivil and “Gigante’’ even more of a rarity. At the beginning of his career, he often worked with the Spanish, particularly with wealthy families in Arequipa—a southern area of the country deemed a city by the Spanish and maintained as their sanctuary, with an ornate basilica and European-influenced plaza, since—where Chambi also learned photography. He shot weddings, baptisms, and portraits of these people, before moving to Cusco to pursue portraits and landscapes of indigenous communities. 

Chambi found himself between two worlds, with two contrasting ideas of what it means to be beautiful. Before moving to Arequipa, he became enamored with the art through American photographers documenting the mining project in which he and his father were working on.2 Having been trained in Arequipa and working solely with Spanish clients so early in his career, I wonder if he considered those people and photographs beautiful.  I wonder if he developed the European eye for art, or whether he found his own, distinct approach to photography. I mostly wonder whether his idea of beauty was based on Cusco and its people, the city to which he regularly and so speedily returned. 

*

Of Chambi’s self-portraits, very few were taken in a studio. Instead, he chose to photograph himself in the Andes and Incan ruins, decorated in his pancho, with the same kind of pride found in de La Cruz’s face. In an untitled, undated, yet well-known self-portrait of the photographer, Chambi sits, framed by a four-rock windowsill of the sort, with a mystical background of a foggy Machu Picchu. His orante pancho drapes over his entire body, such that his head and hands are seen peeking out, as if the garment is engulfing him. It would be impossible to understand what Chambi’s idea of beauty was, but if there is any way to peer into this idea, it would be through his portraits. 

Victor Mendivil y El Gigante de Paruro presented a neutrality with its studio background, the same background shared by a majority of his studio portrait subjects, Spanish and Andean alike. The same studio background traveled with Chambi from Arequipa to Cusco, a rugged, simple canvas of vague, ghostly objects only seen if looking closely–curtains, dainty flowers, and sometimes, a mirror—hiding in the background. It pushes all emphasis on the subject photographed, on their clothing, on the sharp contrasts of light and dark, their stature and expressions, the background not being a part of them but rather separate. It relates to neither community photographed by Chambi, the Spanish or indigenous. The people were the photos. In these portraits, the background became a part of the person, representative of their life, heritage and feelings towards that heritage. 

Chambi must have taken photos that he believed to be beautiful, and I imagine that subjects of his portraits also have the same desire to be beautiful. There’s some odd inclination to always look good in photos of yourself, a strange craving to be satisfied with the portrayal in an image. When the background becomes inseparable from the subject, it creates a conversation between the person and their idea of beauty. Chambi, surrounded by the land in which his culture emerged, identified wholly with his heritage. He must have seen Machu Picchu as a place where he felt beautiful. 

If the natural desire to look beautiful resides in each person, the photographs of Andean people surely made the subjects feel beautiful themselves. The beauty may not have been how they looked, but rather the desire of Chambi to photograph them, and conversely, the desire of Chambi to preserve their culture. In a country where their heritage, as natives, was still seen as “other” or “unrefined,” knowing that something so dear is also adored by someone of the community provides a sense of security.

Chambi never defined what he considered beautiful, but he did make it clear. Beauty was never anything transformational or spiritual—it was ingrained into a person and the traditions in which they are in conversation, the land they live off and the spirit they have. It was not superficial, not defined by outside forces—it was understanding, amplifying voices, a tool for enlightening viewers both inside and outside that community that they are, in fact, worth respect and regard.

In the sixteenth century, Machu Picchu, a thriving Incan citadel, became abandoned by its people in fear of Spanish destruction and colonization. Only in 1911 was the Incan landmark found, untouched by the Spanish. It became a spiritual and historical sanctuary for the Incan people of the time, where their legacy remained preserved and pure. 

Chambi often photographed indigenous Peruvians outside his studio, either on the streets, in the mountains or in ruins. It’s as if he knew that documenting them on native land was critical to understanding their beauty, necessary for preserving the image of everyday Andean culture which was scarcely documented in the past, and never with such precision and care. There was no pitting of cultures against each other, no clear shifting of cultures or emphasis on assimilation. He knew that the Andean and indigenous people could stand alone in a portrait, that their traditions, love of their land, or people alone would suffice. 

And Chambi, I believe, knew about the power of these three things becoming one in a photograph. Apart from portrait photography, his other muse was native Peruvian landscapes. Chambi’s photographs of Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins were bold and brilliant, easily distinct from other photographs of the same places by his keen sense for contrast. The contrasts somehow brought out the same liveliness shown in his portraits. The landscapes look mythical and never-ending—he somehow found a way to create depth in photographs that have been taken similarly by numerous other photographers. The ruins don’t become inanimate objects, they are riveting and beaming with affection. With Chambi’s melding of his two loves, the Andean people and the place in which they came from, portraits that were already brimming with beauty overflow with it, saturating the viewer with the same kind of pride as that of the photographer. 

 

*

Chambi’s work has been a looming presence in my life, his photos both an object of longing and joy. My father has adored Chambi for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve been raised seeking exhibits with his photos on display, with a coffee table book of his in our living room, the perpetual remark that one day my father will get a Chambi photo to call his own. My father is a first generation Peruvian American, his mother from Arequipa and father from Cajamarca, a city in the northern Andes that has been an indigenous community, like Cusco is, and has been, for the Incan people. My father’s heritage, and in turn, my own, is intertwined with Chambi’s in a way where both parts of us are represented, where we understand the places he photographs and where he was taught, what the culture is like and the history of these two worlds. 

When we visit Peru, conversations with family members often shift to the work of Chambi, my great aunt on my grandmother’s (Spanish-Peruvian) side having been photographed by the artist for her First Communion. Although the photo is beautiful enough as a Chambi, it is the indigenous portraits we discuss. 

Chambi has become ingrained into the lives of my family because of the pride that exudes from knowing he is a Peruvian, and even more, knowing he was one of the first notable indigenous Latin American photographers. Though, it is not the title as much as the art itself that makes Chambi memorable, and it is not the person as much as the art. His photos are impactful not because of the people he photographed but because of the beauty in which he bestowed on these people—specifically the Andeans. 

For Peruvians, and particularly indigenous Peruvians, Chambi’s photographs alone, even if they were not as alluring and elegant as they are, were enough to have preserved his legacy in the country. It is the beauty that makes these photographs so memorable, that allows his legacy to thrive. Beauty charms with both grace and seduction, can persuade a viewer to see something in the lens of pure delight, worthy of admiration, worthy of respect. For a legacy such as Chambi’s to be timelessly fused with beauty is what makes it memorable, impactful and influential. Often, I think, beauty comes before any other reaction to a piece of art. It is the initial draw for a viewer to notice it, and if done effectively, beauty will allow the piece to become timeless. 

But to see indigenous Peruvians photographed with not only care, but an intention for others to recognize their beauty, is what Chambi represents most to me. For those not Peruvian, and even in a time where the Spanish and Peruvians had a disconnected, apprehensive relationship, showing indigenous people and livelihoods as beautiful was a protest, like “Gigante” in Victor Mendivil y El Gigante de Paruro and Chambi in his Machu Picchu self-portrait. 

Without such a drive to establish beauty in these people, Chambi’s photographs may not be displayed today. His name may have been a fleeting moment in Latin American photography fiends rather than the topic of family conversations. Chambi’s work being preserved, his legacy being remembered, is as heartening as the photos themselves. Would he still be remembered if these photos weren’t beautiful, or if he solely took portraits of the Spanish?

  1. El Gigante De Paruro (1929),” Martin Chambi Archivo Fotographico.
  2. Alberto López, “Martín Chambi el Indigena que Retrato al Pueblo Peruano,” El Paiz, November 5, 2020.
 
Back to Top
CONFLUENCE