The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu

One of the richest and most fascinating architectural sites globally is in a valley near Cuzco, Peru. It is the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu has fascinated the multitudes with its glorious past. Why it existed, how it was built into the valley, and why it was suddenly abandoned all add to its mystery. One of the site’s most vital and early visual records was made by one of the greatest Peruvian photographers, Martín Chambi.

A Critical Voice in How Remote Peruvian Society is Remembered

Martín Chambi was one of the early pioneers of photography, whose work helped unveil the social world of the Andes to the rest of the globe. As one of the most influential photographers in Peruvian history, Chambi was a critical voice in how remote Peruvian society is remembered. By capturing indigenous imagery, traditions, and culture, he enriched the universal human experience.

One of the Foremost Indigenous Latin American Artists

Chambi made portraits, landscapes, and architectural pictures from city streets, world wonders, and ruins. He had a sophisticated sense of composition and an inquisitive eye, depicting a culture the world had not seen before. Chambi’s contribution to photography, especially in representing the peoples of the Andes, expressed the remote indigenous lands of the Peruvian Sierra as bursting with human stories of ancient customs, unmitigated joys, rich visual history, and complex social layers. One of the foremost indigenous Latin American artists, Martín Chambi, left a potent legacy that inspires photography today.

The Early Years

Martín Chambi Jiménez was born in a village on the Puno plateau in 1891 to a campesino family. In a fortunate turn of events, while accompanying his father to work at a mine, the young Martín saw a camera for the first time. This happenstance occurrence would embark Martín’s accession into a lyrical world of images. He honed his skills in a professional studio of a society photographer in the city of Arequipa. However, Chambi’s most well-known work would stem after his move to Cuzco, wherein from the 1920s until the 1950s, he captured the residents’ lives and conventions in the ancient mythical city.

Machu Picchu

Martin Chambi, "Machupicchu - Cusco"
Martin Chambi, “Machu Picchu – Cusco”, c. 1930s, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Machu Picchu, an emblem of the Incan civilization, was captured by Martín Chambi circa the 1930s, nearly two decades from the citadel’s rediscovery after American academic Hiram Bingham made the existence of the lost city public. Unlike today, where the site is a hub for tourism and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chambi captured the iconic profile of the citadel and helped cement that vantage point as the most recognizable of the site. Theorized to have been built in the mountains, perhaps as a refuge for Incan nobility, contemporary consensus by archaeologists is that Machu Picchu served as a sacred sanctuary for the Incas. Capturing the expansiveness of the landscape and its magnificent setting as well as the intricate, interconnected architecture and detailed handcrafted stonework, all through a tenebrous aura, Chambi’s image shows the entrenched beauty of the age-old site. Cleared of vegetation by researchers but still sparsely visited, Chambi’s Machu Picchu, a silver gelatin print with rich dark tones and soft highlights, contains a deep sense of mystique as an incomparable setting within our world with natural beauty. Indeed, through Chambi’s picture, we get a hint of the breathtaking, almost spiritual experience of visiting the site.

A Titan of Latin American Photography

Chambi’s legacy lives on as a titan of Latin American photography. In 1979, six years after his passing, the Museum of Modern Art in New York would hold a retrospective of his work that would eventually inspire other international expositions. Today, Martin Chambi’s oeuvre as a Peruvian photographer is one of the finest and most profound studies in the practice of documentary and social value photography.

“To say that Chambí was a pioneer is true, but insufficient. The work he left us – in its originality, its penetration into the soul of a world, and its visual richness – is valuable for more than having been the key to Peruvian photography’s international recognition.” – Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Prize in Literature.