If you think of photography and Peru, you probably think of Mario Testino. In fact, I will quite openly admit that up until recently, he was the only Peruvian photographer I had ever heard of, and that’s only really because of his fashion work. But photography in Peru has a much larger history than the last twenty years or so, and some great Peruvian photographers have produced works focusing on the people of their native Peru across the decades.
Peruvian photography was the subject of my first class at the PUCP, and was a good introduction to the (relatively) recent history of Peruvian art due to the fact that I was already, unknowingly, familiar with many of the works, having visited a photographic exhibition only the day before. Talk about fate!
The display I visited was actually three temporary exhibits at the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega cultural centre, focusing on the work of Mauro Castillo, Teo Allain Chambi, and other portraits from different photographers from 1980-1950. It should be put out there, that along with Max T Vargas and Eugene Courret (whose works were featured among the portraits), these are THE names to know in Peruvian photography, and you’ve probably come across their work without realizing it.
However, let’s go back to the beginning. Photography was brought over to Peru in 1842, I learned in class, after having been invented in 1839. The man who introduced this art form to Peru was an Italian, Maximilio Danti, and you can see the Italian influence in Peruvian art across the city (for example, the Italian Museum of Art here in Lima). So this means that there has been almost 200 years of photography in Peru, and thus unsurprisingly a rich archive has developed.
Originally photography was used to document everyday life, and fairly emotionless portraits were the norm (for example, the portrait of the wet nurses with the child is very posed and static). With time however, photographers began experimenting with light, form and composition. These practices were developed in the Southern Andean photographic school by artists like Chambi. This academy is comparable to the Cuzco school of art I’m told, which was a colonial school of fine art that produced many of the works on display today in Cathedrals across Lima.
It is lucky that Peruvian photographers have captured not only the wealthy elite, but scenes from the lives of everyday people which as an anthropologist, I find most interesting. A particular favorite of mine is Chambi’s photograph of the farmers sitting on the potato mountain, taken in Cuzco in 1939 (pictured above). This kind of scene can still be found in the more remote areas of Peru, and it is fascinating to make comparisons over time.
Although the photography exhibit was temporary, similar displays are frequently held across the city so the chance is not lost to see some examples of Peruvian photography from the past. Something to consider after a visit to the Mario Testino Museum, for those whose interest has been sparked and want to learn more.
If you´re interested in studying Art History at the PUCP in Lima, you can check out the course here:
Beckie is a volunteer with the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.