By Lindsey McCormack
BEVERLY, Mass.— From 1924 until his death in 1976, Baldomero Alejos was the premier photographer of Huamanga, a provincial capital in the remote Andean region of Ayacucho. His studio was a magnet for locals who wanted to record a life event — a romance, marriage, birth, or death — or to create a memento for posterity. The Alejos archives were inaccessible during the devastating conflict between the Shining Path and the Peruvian military until the mid-90’s, when Alejos’s son Walter and granddaughter Lucia began to catalogue and digitalize 60,000 jumbled negatives — another 40,000 were lost to rot.
The exhibit “Retouched: The Photographs of Baldomero Alejos” (through June 1, 2006 at the Casa de la Cultura/ The Center for Latino Arts, 85 W. Newton Street, Boston, Mass. Also at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Mass) was organized by Lucia’s childhood friend and Harvard graduate student José Falconi. The show features 150 enthralling images discovered in the archive.
A delightful portrait opens the exhibition; two people nestle close to each other but seem to inhabit different eras. The woman wears traditional clothing and a direct, unadorned expression, as if for a daguerreotype; the man, with his modish sunglasses and unbuttoned sports jacket, strikes a pose straight out of a movie poster. His arm around her shoulder looks less like a tender embrace than the way a gangster might hold onto his moll. Through a perfectly conventional pose, a wonderful play on the artifice of photography is created, a sort of deadpan Peruvian Gothic.
Alejos lived during an unusually peaceful period in long-suffering Ayacucho. His photographs carry a certain antebellum poignancy. (Ironically, one of his last portraits was of the philosophy professor and future guerilla leader Abamiel Guzmán.) Yet these pictures are compelling because Alejos did not approach his job with the apathy of a commercial photographer. He was a perfectionist, elaborating on the playfulness or gravity which his subjects brought to the studio.
Alejos worked only with natural sunlight, skillfully capturing the wide spaces of Andean valleys as well as the subtle expressions of the human face. Given Alejos’s heavy antique box camera and homemade developing equipment, impulse shots were a technical impossibility. Still, the painstaking realism of these photos turns out to be deceptive.
For Alejos, the art of photography lay in the ability to improve on reality just short of making the resulting image unbelievable. His son Walter, who was in Boston for the exhibit opening, explained that Alejos never returned a portrait without first taking a fine graphite pencil and smoothing away black circles and wrinkles, or adding a bit of hair as needed. “He could take fifteen or twenty years off a face,” Walter said, “but if you try to get rid of all the wrinkles it doesn’t look like a person anymore.”
Alejos was proud of his skill at retouching, and the people of Ayacucho were eager to pay for it. A portrait typically cost about twenty percent of a monthly salary; rural families might have to save for months, even years to afford a sitting. Thus to be photographed by Alejos was an honor. In one portrait of an indigent family, the father appears to be holding the photographer’s contract for services rendered: in this way he ensures that the prestige of an Alejos portrait is recorded within the portrait itself.
The contract in the father’s hand also highlights the theatrical quality in these portraits. According to Walter, Alejos was not afraid to send someone home from the studio to comb their hair or try on a different outfit. No wonder, then, that his subjects display considerable self-consciousness about being “onstage.” The musicians done up like gunslingers look ready to shoot their own Mexican cowboy movie; and the proud foursome of toreadors strike the same pose they might use to face down a bull (except, perhaps, the gentle- looking fellow on the right.)
The tendency for exotic self-presentation, especially in women, is also intriguing. Some, such as a society lady in a kimono, wrap themselves in Oriental mystique. Other women dress in the colorful costume of “La Huamanguina,” the folkloric Indian woman of the highlands. As the exhibit notes point out, many of the women dressing as “La Huamanguina” are physically indistinguishable from those who would actually wear the outfit every day, except that their broad smiles and confident bearing give them away as city-dwellers.
To take in the entirety of this wonderful exhibit, the viewer needs to visit two spaces: the David Rockefeller Center at Harvard University, and the Casa de la Cultura/ Latino Arts Center in the South End. The obvious drawback of this setup — many will not have time to travel between both spaces — is offset by the fact that each one functions as a free-standing exhibit. Furthermore, it is important that these photos be displayed in one of Boston’s longest-standing Latino communities. Alejos’s photographs tell a moving story of the creativity and endurance of a culture, and of the social injustices that years of civil war only managed to deepen.