The Vargas Brothers of Arequipa

In memoriam Delford Vargas, by Fernando Castro

curated by Peter Yenne and Adelma Benade

The Vargas Brothers - Carlos (1885-1979) and Miguel (1887-1976) - practiced the art of photography at a time when Pictorialism rendered it international. In their Art Deco home there were stacks of 1920s Pictorialist magazines like Foto Magazine (Buenos Aires), Foto (Barcelona), and 1930s issues of Camera Craft (San Francisco). They were not the only or the first photographers of Peru's southern city of Arequipa. Carlos Heldt, Emilio Diaz, Max T. Vargas, among others, preceded them. In fact, the Vargas Brothers learned the craft and business of photography from Max T. Vargas (no familial connection), the region's most successful studio photographer. Max T. also happened to be the father of Alberto Vargas, the creator of "The Vargas Girls" - the forties exemplars of American female beauty. Regrettably, Max T. left Arequipa and his photographic archives vanished. Fortunately, in 1912 the Vargas Brothers, his heirs in Arequipa, opened their luxurious establishment at the city's main square.

The "Estudio de Arte Vargas Hnos" was not only a successful commercial photographic studio, but also a cultural center where other artists, including painters, poets and musicians showed and/or performed their work. Their acme, the 1920s and 1930s, coincided with an economically, politically and intellectually seminal era for the region. But it was a time of turmoil as well. The landowning classes perpetrated a chilling level of violence against indigenous populations. Some of the violence was connected to a product that made Arequipa prosperous: wool. The female workers sorting wool the Vargas photographed in 1920 give us a small glimpse of the wool industry. Their portrait of Miguel Quispe in native attire (1927) is a piercing depiction of a leader who, under the nom-de-guerre, "El Inca," had commanded an insurrection in pursuit of civil rights and had militarily occupied an entire province in 1922.

Most of the works in the FotoFest exhibition City of Night: The Vargas Brothers Studio, Arequipa, Peru 1912-1930, fall within the period that Peruvian historians call the "Oncenio Leguiista," so called because it covers the eleven-year period (1919-1930) of the presidency-turned-dictatorship of Augusto B. Leguia. In spite of the regime's partially sympathetic support of indigenous communities, in 1920 it passed the infamous Ley de Conscripcion Vial that amounted to the unremunerated forced labor of indigenous peoples for the purpose of building roads. This fact is the subtext for pictures like the "Automobile Service of Don Celso Velarde" (1928) and "New Road from Arequipa to Vitor" (1928).

Arequipa's architecture and its surrounding landscape is often the backdrop for the Vargas' most compelling work: the nocturnes. The fascination for the night is epochal. To begin with, it was one of the preferred themes of Pictorialism worldwide and it belonged to a conglomerate of images shared by both modern and romantic art. In Peruvian poetry, the theme was ubiquitous during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The members of the literary group Aquelarre, who were part of the Vargas' milieu, revered the night. Two members of the group, Renato Morales de Rivera (1890-1931) and Cesar Atahualpa Rodriguez, wrote the poems "Lunar Elegy" (1916) and "Nocturnal Fantasy" (1926), respectively. The Vargas night-time meanderings for the purpose of photographing became a sort of "happening" for their bohemian entourage. 1

To produce the nocturnes, the Vargas took advantage of the bright lunar nights of the Andean highlands and the white-stone buildings of Arequipa. They used bonfires, magnesium flashes, and long exposures. The long exposure in the "Nocturne of La Cabezona's corner" (1928) allowed them to depict themselves twice in the picture - a feat that must have surely bewildered their peers. While many nocturnes are celebrations of a bohemian lifestyle and some have a dark side (no pun intended), an important few comment on the advent of modernity. Such is the case of the "Nocturne of the old Tingo Bridge" (1928) where an automobile is crossing the bridge against a background of the snow-covered Andean peaks. The long exposure leaves stellar tracks in the sky and strategically placed sources of light delineate the arches of the bridge and what looks like a Model T Ford.

As astounding as the Vargas nocturnes are, the importance of their archives lies in the fact that their subject matter is more diverse than that of any other Peruvian photography studio at the time. Their approach at times is so relaxed that the viewer tends to forget that they were photographing with a large 5x7 camera (or larger). With a very modern, thoughtful and almost cinematic vision they depicted family homes, offices, factories, parades, churches, disasters, schools, hospitals, and of course, people.

The kind of portrait the Vargas truly excelled at was of women. The exquisite portrait of Isabel Sanchez Osorio (1926) owes as much to the beauty of the poser as to their technical skills and erotic gaze. Among the many outstanding Vargas portraits of women there are a handful of the renowned cusquena dancer, Helba Huara (1900-1986). But the 1924 Vargas portraits of Helba are histrionic, not erotic - they let her body and facial expression project the persona she was acting out. Helba's life is as fascinating as her portraits. Unhappily married at age fourteen, she had to endure mysterious illnesses throughout her lifetime. In spite of her physical frailty, she had a successful international career as a solo dancer. Andre Kertesz photographed her in Paris on several occasions. In a poem titled "Helba Huara" French poet Jacques Prevert wrote "...suddenly silence explodes under your steps... " Her daughter, Elsa Henriquez, who later married French photographer Emile Savitry, was the model for Balthus's painting The Window. 2 Helba's husband, Gonzalo More, was the lover and leech of the Catalonian writer Anais Nin at the same time Nin was also "doing" Henry Miller. 4

The Vargas studio closed in 1958 and their locale is now a restaurant. Their large format cameras, their enlargers and their archives were moved to their home. After their demise, Delford Vargas, Miguel's son with Carlos' daughter, was for many years the sentinel of their legacy. He was the last photographer in the Vargas lineage. If you asked him who his father was, he would say, "I am the son of the Vargas brothers." After Delford himself died, the Art Deco house was sold and the contents were split up among the surviving heirs.

This exhibition City of Night: The Vargas Brothers of Arequipa, Peru 1919-1930 was on view at FotoFest from November 30, 2006 - January 20, 2007.

End Notes
1. Alejandro Peralta, member of the punerio avant-garde Orkopata group, wrote five poems about the night: "Nocturne of a suburb," "Nocturne of the frogs," "Nocturne of the void," "Musical moon," and "Insomniac glasses." This list could be expanded even further, but it is worth adding one more poet to it: Jose Carlos Mariategui. Mariategui wrote a poem titled "Nocturne" (1915) and another one titled "Insomnia" (1916). These poems were signed with the nom de plume, Juan Croniqueur -an alias that reflects the powerful French influence on the Peruvian literary groups at this time. Ten years later, Mariategui became the most influential political thinker of the Oncenio.
2. I am deeply indebted to Eduardo Pineda, a Peruvian curator currently at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, for his invaluable research on Helba Huara and Gonzalo More. After I gave a lecture at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco titled "The Frayed Twine of Modernity: Peruvian Photography in the Southern Andes 1900-1930," Pineda took it upon himself to pursue the leads about Huara I had hinted at. He even went to Paris and interviewed Elsa Hennquez, Helba Huara's daughter. He is a true expert on Helba Huara.
3. One of Andre Kertesz's portraits of the couple in their frugal Paris apartment in the book Andre Kertesz in Paris is labeled "Ohne titel, Paris in 1928." Now we can title it "Helba Huara and Gonzalo More, Paris, 1928." The reader may draw whatever conclusions he/she may about how the history of art is written.
4. In The Wisdom of the Heart (1941) Henry Miller wrote, "The real function of the dance is metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy, one can even dance abstractly, as Helba Huara proved to the world." Miller's and Prevert's writings are evidence of the force of Huara's artistic presence in the Parisian artistic milieu.