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FOTOFEST International has had a commitment of over 20 years to the discovery and presentation of important Latin American photography.  This exhibition is part of this commitment.

Works by the Vargas Brothers were exhibited by FotoFest at FOTOFEST 1992 as part of a ground-breaking series of exhibits of Latin American photography from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century.  These shows, and images by Carlos and Miguel Vargas, were featured in the award-winning book produced by FotoFest  IMAGE AND MEMORY, Photography from Latin America 1865-1994, published by University of Texas Press in 1998.


By Peter Yenne and Adelma Benavente

Carlos and Miguel Vargas, The Countess V, Arequipa, Peru, c. 1925
Curator Talk with Peter Yenne on Saturday,
January 13, 2007, 2pm at Vine Street Studio

This exhibit is a tribute to a golden period of avant-garde photography in Latin America, and Peru in particular -- the extraordinary work of two brothers, Carlos and Miguel Vargas in city of Arequipa.

The legacy of  Peruvian photography of the early 20th century has only recently begun to be fully understood and appreciated. It is a tale of three cities: Lima, Cusco and Arequipa. While the principal studios of Lima and Cusco have received growing recognition,  Arequipa has, until recently, been largely overlooked.

The Arequipa into which the Vargas brothers were born was a world apart, isolated from the cosmopolitan capital of Lima and the rugged heights of the Sierra by geography, by history and, perhaps most of all, by its own culture. Arequipa was proud, conservative, and deeply traditional --  a beautiful and temperate city, surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes and fearsome deserts.

Toward the end of the19th century, Arequipa began to change. The long-awaited arrival of the railroad in 1871 ended the city’s isolation and ushered in a new era. Overjoyed, Arequipeños celebrated for two weeks straight.  As the Peruvian economy began to strengthen, so did the fortunes of Arequipa. Nationwide, foreign investment in infrastructure and trade led to a surge in exports, and in Arequipa, long an agricultural center, powerful trading houses capitalized on the growing international market for wool and alpaca, creating great fortunes.

With the booming economy came an increased demand for luxury goods and services. Lavish new homes were filled with imported art and furniture, and the wealthy dressed in the latest European fashions. In Lima and the provinces, elaborate photo studios sprang up to serve the growing ranks of the urban bourgeoisie.
One of the earliest studios was opened by Max T. Vargas (no relation to the Vargas Brothers),  who played a central role in the artistic development of the southern Andes. Numerous Peruvian artists passed through the studio, among them Juan Manuel Figueroa Aznar, a painter and photographer whose fotoleos (photographs retouched with oils to resemble paintings) would be an inspiration to the Carlos and Miguel Vargas. Another artist-in-residence was Max T.’s oldest son, Alberto, who gained international fame as the creator of the “Varga Girls” for Esquire and Playboy. In 1908, Max T. Vargas hired a 17 year-old Puneño named Martín Chambi. Chambi assisted the Vargas Brothers when they worked for Max T. Vargas and were left in charge charge of the studio during Max T.’s travels.

Carlos and Miguel Vargas, Hamsen-Portugal Wedding Portrait, Arequipa, Peru, c. 1916

Carlos and Miguel Vargas Zaconet were born in modest circumstances in Arequipa, Carlos in 1885 and Miguel in 1887. They enrolled in the Arts and Crafts School of the prestigious Colegio Salesiano, where they won a silver medal for building a working camera. In 1900, they became apprentices to Max T. Vargas.

On August 16th, 1912, Carlos and Miguel started their own business, directly across the plaza from Max T.’s studio. From the beginning, their business seems to have been a success.

During the 1920s, Arequipa reached unprecedented levels of prosperity. These years were the heyday of the Estudio de Arte Vargas Hermanos, as a vibrant economy, a wealth of new ideas and a fascination with European styles and silent movies turned the city into a cultural oasis.  The Brothers were among the first citizens of Arequipa  to buy a car, and no one surpassed them in their dress. Whether strolling through the city, touring the campiña or relaxing at the seashore, they were always immaculately turned out in fedoras, suits, spats, gloves and canes. Miguel even sported a monocle. It was a glamorous time, and they lived it to the hilt.

As the fame of the Vargas Bros. grew, their achievements were recognized throughout South America and even in Europe. In 1925, they won a gold medal at the Primer Salon de Arte Fotográfico in Buenos Aires, and in 1928 they were featured at the Exposición Iberoamericana en Sevilla. Despite their success, the brothers rarely left their native city, and their one venture abroad seems to have been to La Paz en 1925, where they won the gold Medal of Honor in the Centennial Exposition of Bolivian Independence.

With the advent of the Depression, everything changed. The worldwide crisis dealt a devastating blow to the economy of the southern Andes. Countless fortunes were wiped out and the glittering society that had supported the Vargas brothers for nearly two decades disappeared. Suddenly, traditional studios, with their large staffs and overhead, were no longer practical. Film formats shrank, ornate backdrops went out of style, and photographers were forced to rely on a new clientele with little money and fewer pretensions. Photography, once a luxury, was now a commodity, catering to a mass market. Fotos carnet, ready in minutes, replaced the old formal portraits, and seemingly overnight, the golden age of Peruvian photography came to an end.

The Vargas studio gradually adapted to the new economic realities, but it too had changed. Gone were the elaborate props, the artful poses and the creativity that had been hallmarks of the Estudio de Arte Vargas Hnos. In their place was a modern studio with smaller cameras, a largely middle-class clientele, and a new, no-nonsense business ethic. Though its glory days were over, the Estudio de Arte maintained its preeminent position in Arequipa until  l958.

Carlos and Miguel Vargas, Doris and Carmen Ricketts, Arequipa, Peru, c. 1920

Carlos and Miguel Vargas Zaconet dedicated their lives to a singular creation – the Estudio de Arte Vargas Hermanos. Alchemists of silver, light, celluloid and glass, they created a portrait of Arequipa, a portrait of the faces, places, dreams and illusions of an era. The world they knew is gone, but the photographs they left behind are eloquent reminders of a time when the irresistible forces of modernity had not yet swept away the graceful, unhurried rhythms of a more formal and elegant age.

When it came to organizing this retrospective, we had several criteria. Naturally, we wanted to showcase the artistic achievements of Carlos and Miguel Vargas, but we have also included images that shed light on the social, cultural and historical background of the period. To the careful observer, the views of the Vargas Bros. studio offer a wealth of information on the photographers’ daily lives: how they worked, how they saw themselves, how they promoted themselves, and which images they themselves chose to exhibit.

Peter Yenne and Adelma Benavente
Curators and Co-founders of The Photographic Archive Project

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