Martín Chambi, native photographer

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Purple Night, digital painting, 2023


Martín Chambi's works capture and represent moments of coexistence between the past and a present in transition

Martin Chambi. Juan de la Cruz Sihuana, Cuzco, 1925

At the age of 14, Martín Chambi (1891-1973) worked in the gold mines that the British were exploring in his native Peru. He learned the rudiments of photography from the same foreign bosses. He became a professional photographer working on commissions, especially portraits, as well as on his own, photographing the land and its people. The commissioned works served to finance his passion for documenting his time, his land and his culture.

In the works of Martín Chambi, photography is, at the same time, the medium and the index, the tool and the record of the modern developments that affected the Peruvian nation and its people in the first decades of the 20th century. they represent moments of coexistence between the past and a present in transition, that is, a time divided internally between what was and what will come. Divided between being and becoming, the present is no longer identical to itself: it is a time of relative non-identity. And yet, between fact and representation, life continues as a homogeneous duration. The paradox of lived time, like photographic time itself, is that, in many ways, it is a time that does not pass. The place of photography is between what has already disappeared and what is always there.

Martin Chambi. Peasant woman from Q'eromarca with child, Cusco, 1934

One of the notable elements of Martín Chambi's photography, we can say, is in fact the power to amalgamate in the same look, the same vision and perspective, the modern and the “ancestral”, technology and the “soul” – that is, photography, the “machine image”, and the spirit or “aura” of a people, a place and a culture. A culture, that is, a specific form of life, a unique form of humanity made visible by the photographer. The “aura”, that is, an emanation of light that frames a unique formal pattern, a momentary and original configuration, at the same time fleeting, instantaneous and timeless.

Martin Chambi. Machu-Pichu, 1925

Photographer Martín Chambi is himself a bearer of modernity, of a new vision for and of his culture. The photographer is like an intruder or invader on his own land. And yet, the gaze, the vision or the look at his works is reciprocal, a kind of dialogue between the artist and his models, a trade of places between the observer and the observed. In this case, the photographer is simultaneously an external and internal observer. The aesthetics of gender and the picturesque in Martín Chambi's photography become a means of inversion – the “foreign” gaze can serve as a tool for self-reflection. The individuals in Martín Chambi's photos seem to look at the photographer with a gaze that resembles, we could say, the “mechanical” gaze or vision of the camera: at the same time intense, focused and “distracted”, indifferent or suspended.

The indigenous photographer does not limit himself to “deconstructing” photography, romanticism and genres: he uses them for his own ends. His perspective is, in essential respects, that of the relentless logic of the photographic instrument or medium as such. Photography can, in fact, record time and culture quite objectively, because it is in itself a collective enterprise, a collective medium that implies in each shot a multiplicity of points of view, including that of the photographer, his subjects and spectators. . The multiple gaze of photography can express the infinite forms and modulations of human experience – all unique and at the same time equivalent, that is, eminently translatable into the image. Time itself translates its multiple dimensions into the forms of photography.

Martin Chambi. Self-portrait with motorcycle, Cuzco, 1934

Martín Chambi's work is a large collection of postcards documenting the people and landscape of Peru. In this vast collection, the photographer transitions effortlessly from public display, commercial work to private viewings. In the postcard as a form, the image is a mediating point between the other's gaze and vision as a trace, memory, subjective recollection. The photographic image reveals human vision as an exchange relationship between two absent people. It is handed over to an absent third party: the postcard is addressed to the future.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima is an artist, researcher, writer and teacher.

Translation/revision/adaptation of the original published in the book Heterochrony and Vanishing Viewpoints, art chronicles and essays. Available in free access here.

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