FotoFest Home


City of Night: The Vargas Brothers Studio
October 25, 2006

City of Night: The Vargas Brothers
Arequipa, Peru 1912-1930

FotoFest Presents an Exhibit of Photographs
From the Golden Age of Peruvian Photography

November 30, 2006 - January 20, 2007
FotoFest Headquarters
1113 Vine Street, Houston, TX 77002

Houston, Texas (October 24, 2006) –A retrospective exhibition of photographs from the Vargas Brothers Studio in Arequipa, Peru, City of Night offers an extraordinary glimpse of a vanished world, the vibrant Creole society of southern Peru in the early 20th century.

City of Night opens Thursday, November 30, 2006, 6-9 pm, at FotoFest’s headquarters at Vine Street Studios in downtown Houston. The exhibit continues through Saturday, January 20, 2007. The exhibition will be accompanied by a curatorial gallery talk on Saturday, December 2 at 2pm at FotoFest headquarters.

With the North American premiere of City of Night, FotoFest continues its long-standing commitment to the photographic heritage of Latin America, a commitment that began with a series of groundbreaking exhibitions of Latin American photography at FOTOFEST 1992.

FotoFest is presenting City of Night as the third of five Inter-Biennial Exhibits following FotoFest’s 2006 Biennial.

City of Night, the first in-depth retrospective of the extraordinary work of Carlos and Miguel Vargas, is curated and produced by Peter Yenne and Adelma Benavente, co-founders of the Photographic Archive Project, a Houston non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of photo archives in the developing world.

In 1999, the Photographic Archive Project began a three-year investigation of Peruvian and Bolivian photo history. This pioneering research project, Portrait of the Andes, brought together specialists in photo history, photography, anthropology and Andean studies. The experts were assisted by 120 volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute for Field Research, who traveled to Peru and Bolivia to clean, catalog and digitize nearly 15,000 negatives from a dozen public and private collections in Arequipa, Cusco, and La Paz. The project was supported by the Earthwatch Institute, a volunteer organization based in Maynard, Massachusetts. “What the investigators and volunteers found,” says Houston-based curator Peter Yenne “was a treasure trove of Andean images which had not been seen, much less exhibited, in more than half a century.

“FotoFest artistic directors had an opportunity to see this project in operation in Bolivia. As part of its 2002 Biennial, FotoFest sponsored the first exhibit drawn from this collaborative effort, a retrospective of the work of Julio Cordero, a talented and versatile photographer who worked in La Paz, Bolivia for over 40 years.”

City of Night is the second exhibition to come from Portrait of the Andes. It spotlights the work of Carlos and Miguel Vargas, two brothers who established the most successful and influential photo studio of their time in southern Peru. Lifelong residents of Arequipa, a picturesque colonial city 400 miles south of Lima, the Vargas Brothers left behind an elegant, poetic and unforgettable visual elegy to the city they knew and loved so well.

From the Belle Époque through the 1920s, a booming economy, a wealth of new ideas and a fascination with European styles and silent movies transformed this formerly isolated city, high in the Atacama Desert, into an oasis of cosmopolitan culture. This was the heyday of the Estudio de Arte Vargas Hermanos, which quickly became a focal point of cultural life in Arequipa.

The Vargas Brothers hosted art exhibits, poetry readings and musical recitals in their beautifully appointed gallery. They served as local distributors for avant-garde magazines from Europe and Latin America, and even sold the latest Louis Armstrong records. Consummate dandies, they also drove one the first cars in Arequipa. Whether strolling through the city, picnicking in the country, or relaxing at the beach, they were always impeccably turned out in fedoras, suits, spats, gloves and canes.

“It was a glamorous era, and they lived it to the hilt,” says Mr. Yenne.

To support this luxurious lifestyle, the brothers built a thriving studio business. Renowned for their portraits, they also photographed schools, offices, factories, social gatherings and civic events. Commercial success, however, was not enough to satisfy the Vargas Brothers.

“They were true bohemians, and their friends included poets, painters and writers," says Mr. Yenne, “They were determined to prove that photography was not simply a craft, but an art. This determination took many forms, but by far the most spectacular was their astonishing series of nocturnos. These meticulously staged, dreamlike views of Arequipa and the surrounding countryside were taken on moonlit nights, using long exposures and additional lighting from lanterns, bonfires, streetlamps and flash powder.

“Reminiscent of the early Pictorial work of American photographers such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, the Vargas nocturnes were almost unprecedented in South America, and remained unequalled in Europe until the great Hungarian photographer Brassai began photographing Paris by night in the Thirties.”

While these evocative images owe a debt to the silent screen, and, in some cases, even seem to presage film noir, the influence of Hollywood and the Jazz Age reached its peak in the Vargas’ portraits of women and entertainers. Dancers, actors, vamps and vaudevillians came from far and wide to have their portraits taken by the famous duo. The resulting images, which have all the earmarks of the Roaring '20s, might just have easily been shot in Paris or Los Angeles as southern Peru. Taken together, the pictures in City of Night will come as a revelation to most viewers, reflecting a society more polished, sophisticated, exotic and complex than they would have ever imagined.

“The Vargas Brothers' work is one of the most striking examples of the extraordinary artistic flowering that took place in the Andean cities of Arequipa, Cuzco and La Paz during this period,” observes FotoFest Artistic Director Wendy Watriss. “Photography was an integral part of this cultural renaissance. The Vargas Brothers were among the most innovative and cosmopolitan of the many photographers who were active in the region. They are an early 20th century reflection of ‘globalization’.”

City of Night’s opening reception at FotoFest, Thursday, November 30, 6-9 pm, features Peruvian food, drink and music.

The exhibit will be open to the public, free of charge, Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm and Saturday, noon-6pm, November 30, 2006 to January 20, 2007, at FotoFest Headquarters at Vine Street Studios, 1113 Vine Street, Houston, Texas.

Please see the FotoFest website at for holiday hours and directions to the FotoFest Headquarters. For other information, call 713/223-5522 ext. 19.

The Houston presentation of City of Night has been made possible through the cooperation of Dr. Jaime Laso and Roxana Chirinos, directors of the Asociación Vargas Hermanos. After its Houston premiere, City of Night will tour Europe in collaboration with the Spanish arts organization, Canopia Gestión Cultural.

Sponsors for FotoFest Inter-Biennial Exhibitions are the City of Houston through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, Margaret Regan and Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen Jr., and The Wortham Foundation.

The list of FotoFest’s institutional funders and special funders for this exhibit is available on the FotoFest website,

For visuals or more information on this exhibit and other FotoFest Inter-Biennial programs, please contact Patti Stoddart at (713) 223-5522 ext. 26 or Para información en español por favor llamen a Marta Sánchez Philippe al (713) 223-5522 ext.16 o por la web:

Hi-res press images are available for download at