I always like to look at the work of other photographers for inspiration and ideas on how to apply technique. One benefit of living in this massive city is that there is usually a couple of exhibitions around that are worth visiting. The exhibition “Face Andina: Fotografias de Martin Chambi” at the Instituto Moreira Salles had been on my list since Christmas, but I only got around to visiting it yesterday, just in time before it closes on 22 February.
Martin Chambi (1881-1973) was a pioneering indigenous Peruvian photographer, who tried to photograph his own people in a different way then just as an exotic species. He was one of the first to photograph Machu Picchu and also became known as a photojournalist, who worked not only for newspapers Cusco, but was also published in National Geographic.
I had first read about Martin Chambi in the book ‘Andes’ by Michael Jacobs, which triggered my interest in seeing the exhibition, which consists of 88 photographs, the majority portraits and group photos, as well as a series of images taking at various Inca sites in the mountains, including the very iconic photograph featured above, one of my favourites. His photos provide a chance to peek into Peruvian society of the early 20th century. One of the images that made me smile was one of the ladies basketball team, lined up from tall to (quite) short, in their long skirts, with special hats and shoes with a small heel. A world apart from basketball players nowadays!
As I looked at the various portraits, I mused at how interesting it is that portraits are often defined, or at least were back then, by how we think we need to pose rather then how we would like to pose. The very stilted poses of some ‘pillars’ of society contrasted starkly with the defying look of a young society lady who clearly felt like the bees’ knees in her shoot. And the portrait of a worker had a very submissive look to it, of someone who barely felt worthy of a photograph.
Chambi used mainly natural light, with some impressive results. I really liked one of his portraits of an older man where the only light was like a halo around one part of his head, providing barely sufficient illumination to show the rest of his face. Very atmospheric.
Often we seek out the exotic or extraordinary to make photographs. I feel that Chambi often tried to photograph the ordinary in a, for us, extraordinary environment, in a way that transcended the usual imagery associated with it. If any exhibition of his work ever comes to Australia, I highly recommend a visit, but a browse on google will also bring up many of his wonderful photographs.