by Christopher Dow
Peter Yenne has spent the last decade and a half hunting silver treasure in the Andes Mountains, and when he strikes a rich deposit—often in some dusty attic corner or a dirty, disused shed—it’s pure gold.
The silver that Yenne seeks isn’t ore. It’s silver film spread over thin glass plates that were one of the earliest forms of photographic negatives. And the images he’s bringing to light reveal the rich and complex history, culture and society of South American cities during the early 20th century.
Yenne, who earned a degree in 1972 in fine arts, with an emphasis on art history, film and photography from Rice University, initially was interested in the artistic aspect of photography. Eventually, he turned to commercial photography, and for a time, even shot photographs for Rice. But a chance encounter with Fernando Castro in the mid-1980s at the Rice Media Center would add curator to Yenne’s résumé and set him on a course he never expected. Castro was a Peruvian who had come to Rice on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying philosophy and aesthetics, and Yenne had been to Peru and was fascinated with the country. He and Castro became friends, and during the late 1980s, Yenne visited Castro in Peru. Then, in 1990, he received a letter from his friend that read, “I’ve come across some really interesting photo archives, and I think you should come down and take a look. Maybe we can do something with them.”
Both were thinking the same thing: FotoFest International, the Houston nonprofit that mounts a citywide photo biennial in Houston, was in the process of developing its 1992 show on the theme of Columbus and the New World. Yenne agreed to go to Peru to look over the archives, located in Lima, Arequipa and Cusco. In Arequipa, he spent three days going through hundreds of boxes filled with glass-plate negatives piled up in the garage of an art deco mansion and found himself amazed not just by the quantity, but also by the quality, variety and sheer artistry of the photographs.
The photos were the work of Carlos and Miguel Vargas, who, between 1912 and 1930, were celebrated photographers in Arequipa, then a lovely colonial city of about 15,000. The brothers’ own story was as intriguing as their work. Sons of an impoverished single mother, they managed to go to school and show their motivation and intelligence by building their own camera while still in their early teens. This attracted the attention of Arequipa’s best-known photographer, who took the brothers on as apprentices. They spent 12 years with him before opening their own studio, and they were so good that they eventually drove their mentor out of town.
At the time, Arequipa had a predominantly European culture and was riding high on a flush economy. The town enjoyed an element of high culture along with its wealth, and that translated into good business for the Vargas brothers. They opened a lavish studio that catered to the city’s rich and famous, and in addition to elaborate society portraits and commercial photography, their work included postcard views, domestic interiors, street scenes, churches, schools, carnivals, theater stills, funerals and military maneuvers. Among their most striking images are moodily lit nocturnal street scenes that prefigure the noir look of films from the ’40s and ’50s. “These are their signature images,” Yenne says, “and they were done as a purely artistic endeavor. In financial terms, they couldn’t have been very lucrative, but these were the photos that cemented their reputations as artists.”
Realizing the fragile sheets of glass had immense historical and cultural value, Yenne made some quick contact prints that he brought back to Houston. FotoFest also was impressed and agreed to sponsor an exhibition in 1992. The show was a success, and it toured the United States before going to Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico.
Yenne found himself hooked. “Since I was a kid, I’ve had this urge to conserve things,” he says. “As a photographer, I’ve always wanted to document things that were disappearing—cultural traditions or buildings or archaeological sites. But Peru is full of surprises, and somehow I wound up conserving photography instead.”
He formed the nonprofit Photographic Archive Project in 1991 to facilitate the effort and began looking for other hidden treasures. “We knew that where there was one archive, there were bound to be more,” he says. “Nobody had done any work in Bolivia, for example, and I was sure there had to be some fascinating pictures there. The advantage to working in the Andean countries is that the cold, dry mountain climate is conducive to saving this kind of material. So, where earthquakes or neglect haven’t ruined a collection, the negatives have held up pretty well.”
Research and word of mouth brought more collections to his attention, and, together with two photo historians, Michele Penhall and Adelma Benavente, he began a project to archive the best of what they found. Initially, Yenne installed a darkroom in Arequipa to make prints, but by the year 2000, it was clear that scanning and digital printing had surpassed traditional photographic methods. The Archive Project has received exhibition funding from FotoFest, which mounted a second show at FotoFest 2002 and a third this past winter, but the primary funding for the digital research came from Earthwatch Institute, which brings together volunteers from the United States, Europe and Asia to work on research projects worldwide. To date, it has provided the Archive Project with more than 120 volunteers over three years.
The first field season was in Arequipa. “One of the reasons we decided to work in Arequipa first is that the area is surrounded by volcanoes and is highly active tectonically,” Yenne says. “I was terrified that all these negatives would be obliterated in an earthquake. Glass plates are about a 1/16th of an inch thick, and they’re easy to break. If a wall collapses on a box of plates, that’s it. Our fears were well-founded. In July 2001, less than two years after we finished our work in Arequipa, an 8.1 quake nearly destroyed the cathedral.” During the 2000 field season, the Earthwatch teams worked in Cuzco, Peru, and the following year in Bolivia, where, Yenne says, there undoubtedly are a number of undiscovered collections. In 2002, Yenne received a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Peru and do additional research.
Over the years, the researchers have surveyed nearly 50,000 images and scanned about 15,000. “I’m interested not just in the work that made the photographers famous or what they might have considered their most glamorous images,” Yenne says, “but in pictures that tell you something about the society, culture and politics of the period. And of course, anything that’s funny, arresting or out of the ordinary, because what I’ve always hated about the way historical images are normally presented is that they show you the town square with horses and buggies or a harbor scene with sailing ships. Well, everybody’s seen those pictures, and it’s not news that they didn’t have cars or cruise ships. It’s much more interesting to know other things about a society.”
So far, the focus of the Archive Project has been the Andean countries, but Yenne has his eyes set on the rest of South America and beyond. “There’s a wonderful collection in Guatemala, which is really interesting,” he says, “and another in Cuba, if the political winds shift. That one has a lot of Hemingway images—35mm negatives of all of his travels in Africa, big game hunting and so forth, and they won’t last forever. I’d be interested to see what can be found in central Asia or Russia. I’ve seen parts of a collection in Kathmandu, Nepal, taken by the court photographer to the kings of Nepal from the late 19th century to the 1920s. That’s about as exotic as it gets—tiger hunts, jeweled costumes, the works.” He laughs. “Of course, they’re in the middle of a civil war, but I tend to work in places that are snake-bit. My wife thinks I’m nuts, but then again, I don’t have to compete with other researchers.”
But maybe there’s method to Yenne’s madness. “It’s really a privilege to be able to work with material like this,” he says. “The way we found some of this stuff would break your heart, but once you clean it up and sort through it, it’s a gold mine. Out of thousands of pictures, you’re guaranteed to find some that are absolutely amazing. If you think about art collections worldwide, the chances of discovering an unknown European or American artist are basically zero. For me, finding collections of this quality and bringing them to light is the dream of a lifetime. It’s like an ornithologist discovering a new bird.”
And sometimes it’s like returning a fledgling to its nest. Yenne tells of one Earthwatch volunteer—a woman in her 30s—who recently had gone through a rough time. Her mother, with whom she was very close, died; a long-term relationship ended; and her job with a major pharmaceutical company was very stressful and demanding. “One night she couldn’t sleep,” Yenne relates, “so she started doing some meditation to relax, and out of the blue, the phrase ‘volunteer vacation’ came into her head. She looked it up on the Web, and the hit came up for Earthwatch Institute, and she read about our project in Arequipa.” As it happened, her mother’s family was from Arequipa, so she signed up.
“Ana Maria spent most of her free time looking for pictures of her mother,” Yenne says. “We had a ledger that listed all the portrait sittings, and she combed through it and found her mother’s name there along with her grandmother’s. At the time, though, nothing was organized, and we had no idea where the negatives were, assuming they still existed. She couldn’t find them during her planned visit, so she extended her stay a few days.”
Yenne suspected the negatives might be in a storage facility, but the caretaker, who had the only key, was out of town for the weekend, and Ana Maria was leaving on Tuesday. “Monday morning, we finally reached him, and by noon we had the rest of the negative boxes, which were astoundingly heavy because they’re basically filled with solid glass, back at the apartment we’d rented. We had to clean everything off outside because it was so filthy we didn’t dare take it into our research space.” Meanwhile, Ana Maria dove in and almost instantly found a box with the right sequence of numbers.
“She opened it up,” Yenne says, “and sure enough, there was the picture of her mother, age 3, and another of her grandmother. She started crying. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, what are the odds? It was like a dream come true.”
Yenne hopes to develop an online database of the archives to make the material more accessible. “I’d like to reach an agreement with an institution, perhaps a library or a museum, that would host it on its site,” he says. “The point is to make people aware of these wonderful images. If nobody knows they’re there, they just languish in obscurity. Our ultimate goal is to raise people’s consciousness about the value of these images and get them involved in preserving the material instead of simply selling it or throwing it away.”
This article originally appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.
A late-afternoon view of the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, circa 1928. In the background is Chachani, one of the three 18,000-foot volcanoes that ring the city. Today, the square would be thronged with people, but the city was then less than one-tenth of the size it is now.
“Nocturne: Aqueduct of Izcuchaca,” taken circa 1920, is part of a series of nocturnal views of Arequipa and the surrounding countryside that were taken between 1916 and 1928 and constitute the Vargas brothers’ crowning artistic achievement.
First Communion in front of the cathedral in Arequipa, taken in about 1912.