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Perusing A Peruvian Archive

Baldomero Alejos' collected work featured at Harvard's DRCLAS

By Jeremy S. Singer-vine, Crimson Staff Writer

Baldomero Alejos, whose photographic documents of life in the Ayacucho region of Peru currently hang in the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) building, considered himself a tradesman, not an artist. But considering his unusual talent for composition, dynamism, and detail as displayed in the exhibit, it seems that he sorely underestimated himself.

Alejos worked from 1924 until his death in 1976 as the only professional photographer in Ayacucho, amassing a large, focused body of work which is now making its first appearance outside of Peru.

DRCLAS and the Center for Latino Arts (CLA) in Boston are jointly exhibiting “Retouched: The Photographs of Baldomero Alejos.” The majority of Alejos’ work was studio portraiture, on display at CLA. In his time away from his studio, however, Alejos created a vast photographic archive of the events and people of rural Ayacucho, of which 41 prints will be on view at DRCLAS for the rest of the semester.

The photographs were a long time coming. Shortly after Alejos’ death, a fifteen-year conflict erupted in Ayocucho between the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla insurgency and the Peruvian armed forces. After the conflict ended in 1995, Alejos’ family went back to his studio and found 100,000 glass plate negatives, 60,000 still intact. From this archive Lucia, Peruvian photographer and Alejos’ granddaughter, has begun to print the photographs in the exhibit, the most comprehensive remaining visual record of mid-century Ayacucho.

The wide range of Alejos’ photographs is immediately apparent upon visiting the DRCLAS exhibit. He was, one might say, an equal-opportunity photographer, making pictures of clergy, military men, public officials, the wealthy, the working class, and the poor, establishing many points of comparison among his subjects along the way.

The photographs are notable for their many iterations of the photographer-subject negotiation. While Peruvians were no strangers to photography at the time, cameras were scarce in Ayacucho and the act of photography was conspicuous. It was impossible for Alejos, with his large-format camera, to be unnoticed by his subjects.

Instead, his subjects were all aware of his presence, in some capacity. This varying level of camera-awareness, ranging from posed portrait to near-candid is stimulating and keeps the exhibit engaging.

Alejos’ best photographs succeed for reasons as diverse as his subject matter. Lighting is what makes “San Juan de Dios Hospital” a great photograph—the sun comes from three large windows, bounces off the plaster walls, and illuminates each immaculate hospital bed with gradually increasing intensity towards the back of the room. As the hospital beds recede, the hospital employees arc out from the rear of the room towards us, and their dress changes from the dark suits in the rear to white robes in the front.

Other photographs are impressive for their balanced complexity. “Typical Nativity Scene” is near-maddening with its hundreds of miniature snow globes, potted plants, dolls, Disney characters, and doilies, but Alejos rescues the scene from pure cacophony. He steps away and sets the nativity scene off-center, transforming it into a cohesive unit. Still, if we come close to the photograph, we can just make out the detail of each miniature.

Yet the most impressive photographs are those Alejos took of peasants gathering in and around town. Perhaps what is so appealing about these photos, besides the repetition of forms and strong composition, is that we get the whole range of camera-awareness in the subjects. It is as if Alejos set up his camera and waited just long enough for some people to forget his presence and become distracted by someone or something else.

The arrangement in “Group of Peasants on Acuchymay Mountain” is clearly for the camera. Yet, perhaps because of the car whose front bumper can be seen in the corner of the photograph, several of peasants are looking off in another direction. A group of men in suits look most intently at the camera, perhaps are most aware of the importance of self-presentation.

At end of the exhibit, “Peasants Gathered at Christmastime in front of the Mayor’s Office” combines the tempered cacophony of “Typical Nativity Scene” with the mixed attentions “Group of Peasants.” Alejos’ camera peers from above a town square upon thousands of peasants.

They are packed so tightly that for the majority we can see little more than a head. Part “Where’s Waldo,” part Jackson Pollock painting, this photograph throbs and pulses as if the viewer is standing in the center of the crowd. Just as in Alejos’ other photographs of gatherings, the viewer notes that the peasants are aware of the camera, but just as many look at their children, siblings, or friends. And even though the photograph includes so many people, almost every face is legible.

Whether or not Alejos’ was an “artist,” he certainly transcended the status of mere tradesman. His documentary photographs can be read not only as artifacts of pre-conflict Ayacucho, but also as confirmation of a coherent aesthetic. These two interpretations are impressively complementary. Rarely do the artistic aspects of his photographs interfere with their evidentiary qualities; more often, the composition, lighting, and perspectives of Alejos’ photographs elucidate relationships among the subjects and amplify the details.

“Retouched: The Photographs of Baldomero Alejos” is open until June 1, 2006 at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in the CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street and at the Center for Latino Arts, 85 W. Newton Street, Boston.

—Staff writer Jeremy S. Singer-Vine can be reached at jsvine@fas.harvard.edu.

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