Belle poque

In 1912, two Peruvian dandies opened a photography studio in Arequipa, Peru, a historic city in the southern Andes. The nattily dressed Vargas brothers, Carlos and Miguel, wore top hats and spats, with Miguel even sporting pince-nez. Their studio would become a cultural center in Arequipa -- the brothers hosted art exhibitions and poetry readings, and they disseminated the latest music and publications from abroad. And they would photograph practically every aspect of life in the city.

In 1999, Houston-based photographer Peter Yenne and Peruvian photo historian Adelma Benavente, along with 44 volunteers from the Boston-based Earthwatch Institute, sorted through 15,000 negatives from the Vargas Brothers Studio, scanning 5,000 of them into the computer. Yenne and Benavente culled through the thousands of scanned negatives, selected 80 or so of the most intriguing images and made digital prints from them. The results are on view at FotoFest in "City of Night: The Vargas Brothers Studio, Arequipa, Peru 1912-1930."

It's an extraordinary collection of photographs, and the diverse and quirky images create a fascinating portrait of life in Arequipa in the early 20th century. A majority of the subjects were women. A circa-1910 portrait presents a self-possessed Arequipa beauty, her crimped hair fanning out around her head, the impossible volume made possible by period armatures. Almost a hundred years later, she's still striking. The bottom half of the negative was damaged; she seems to draw back from the encroaching decay even as her dark eyes confront the viewer.

A goofy 1925 photomontage purports to be a sampling of the "Belles of Arequipa." Dozens of tiny heads from years of portraiture were collaged together and then re-photographed. Their evolving hairstyles reflect changing fashions. It seems more like some marketing gimmick targeted at the society ladies of Arequipa than an actual sampling of "belles." A number of the women in the collage seem more than a little long in the tooth.

The brothers' circa 1915 photo of a chunky, naked toddler, Mara Antonieta Losa, one-ups the classic baby-on-the-lambskin-rug photo. She reclines on one arm like an odalisque from a 19th-century Orientalist painting, her hair fashionably curled around her head. She wears a jeweled necklace, and a bracelet adorns her plump forearm. I suppose you could look at the image in JonBent-sexualized-child-beauty-pageant terms, but the image seems far too nave and sweet. The child gives an amused little smile, like she's in on the joke.

Another photograph of a little girl is heart-wrenching; the circa 1920 image is postmortem. Lying dead on a bier covered with wilting white rose petals, with candelabras lit at either side, she clutches a bouquet in her tiny hands, with her head turned so her glassy eyes stare directly at the camera. We are reminded of how much more common childhood death once was. The brothers photographed her lovingly arranged, one last portrait for a grieving family.

Many of the photographs contrast each other in interesting ways. In a group portrait of a first communion, a crowd of little girls, circa 1915, stands in various degrees of white finery, their black-draped mothers clustered behind them. A sea of people stretches back alongside the cathedral, and it seems the whole town has turned out for the event. But if the communion photo represents the piety of Arequipa, images of vaudeville gals like Gloria Tellez showcase the risqu side of the city (a side the womanizing Vargas brothers were well acquainted with). In her circa 1925 portrait, Tellez sports a sprawling, feathered headdress and a loose, one-piece bathing suit-like outfit over her thick middle. Her chunky legs end in too-tight shoes. The photo seems kind of sad and embarrassing, but for all we know Tellez may have been the femme fatale of Arequipa.

The brothers photographed a number of performers and stayed on top of popular and high culture in America and Europe, from silent films to ballet. Shots of their studios reveal their own flair for the theatrical. The brothers enthusiastically -- and repeatedly -- used props in their photographs. The opulent patterned drape that covered the toddler odalisque's chaise is recycled into a gown in a neighboring portrait of a woman. Swirled tightly around the figure of Isabel Snchez Osorio, the drape twists around her ankles la Morticia Addams, ending in a spiral of fringe on the floor. (I wonder if Osorio knew it might have toddler pee on it.) The same drape can be seen again in a large photograph of the brothers' gallery, folded up. The room is filled with other props, like leopard skin rugs, a stuffed bird, what looks like a stuffed dog, and a variety of chairs, among them an amazing art nouveau armchair that had to be quite avant-garde at the time.

In addition to the extremes of Arequipa's "moral" spectrum, the brothers photographed opposite ends of the political and socioeconomic spectrum. They recorded characters such as puffed-up General Francisco La Rosa Villanueva in a photo taken circa 1915, resplendent in his European-style uniform with gold braid and medals, but they also created a solemnly dramatic circa 1925 portrait of the indigenous rights activist Miguel Quispe in Inca headgear. A 1925 shot of a crowded public school classroom packed with boys in worn clothing, sitting on rocks in lieu of stools, stands in contrast to the opulent but unpeopled interiors of the mansion owned by the wealthy Forga family.

The brothers took numerous nocturnal shots of Arequipa's streets, churches and bridges that feel like film noir stills from The Third Man -- but instead of postwar Vienna, we see a colonial city with the Andes looming in the distance. (Instead of The Third Man's zither music, I suppose you'd have to substitute the quena flute.) The city scenes are as haunting as they were difficult to photograph. Exposures could take more than an hour, and the brothers used car headlights and flash powder to help illuminate the night.

Beyond the portraits and city scenes, the Vargas brothers captured the cutting edge of technology and science. A 1920 image presents the dials and levers of a radio telegraph station operated by a man with a handlebar mustache. Another, a circa 1928 photograph, documents period brain surgery in a white-tiled operating room. It's a surreal image; the surgery team is completely clad in white, while a nun in the center wears her enormous Daughters of Charity (i.e., Flying Nun) cornette. It looks like it would certainly interfere with the surgery, probably by poking the surgeon's eye out. The patient also is draped entirely in white, except for the dark blood trickling down the sheet and into a rusted white-enamel bucket.

According to Yenne, the Vargas brothers' studio remained successful until it closed in 1958, but the nature of the work they did changed. The Depression era of the '30s was an understandably difficult time, and Yenne explains that the '40s and '50s were also tough, but in a different way. Photography moved from being an elaborate formal process directed by professionals to quickie snapshots by amateurs. The grandeur and mystique of the studio portrait was lost. The Vargas brothers' portraits became quicker and more perfunctory, primarily mass-market head shots.

But for a brief, glorious period, their creativity was intrinsically linked with the people, life and culture of their city.