Pierre Verger in the Andes: Before Fátúmbí

Paul R. Davis

As a photographer, Pierre Edouard Léopold Verger is most recognized for his work after the 1940s in Nigeria and Brazil. During that time he became an initiated priest (babaláwo) of the Ifá religion in West Africa and was given the name Fátúmbí, “one reborn in Ifá.” When he returned to Bahia (Salvador), Brazil, he became a respected figure among leaders of Candomblé, a religion grounded in the practices of Ifá brought to Brazil by enslaved peoples from West Africa. Verger’s photographs from Andes are less known, but they represent a transformational moment in the trajectory of his development as one of the early practitioners of visual anthropology—a field that specializes in the use of photography and film to document and make observations about human behavior and culture.

Verger was born in Paris to a German mother and a Belgian father. His father ran the family printing firm, and Verger worked there with his uncles after the death of his father in 1915. He took up photography at the end of 1932 while traveling with his friend Pierre Boucher (1908–2000). That same year Verger traveled to Polynesia, which then was one of the far outposts of the French colonial empire. After he returned to Paris almost two years later, Verger established connections with the staff of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (renamed Musée de l’Homme in 1937). He joined the Paris-Soir journalist team of French novelist Marc Chadourne (1895–1975) on a sponsored reportage-tour around the world. Around the same time, he also cofounded of the Alliance-Photo agency with Boucher and other independent photographers working in France, including Maria Eisner (1909–1991), who later was a founding member of the Magnum photography consortium. Between 1934 and 1940, when the French army mobilized him as a photographer for the Vichy-controlled government of French West African (Afrique Occidentale française), Verger completed an incredible global photographic itinerary. Working his way west, he visited multiple states in the United States (including Texas) before traveling to China, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Mali (then Soudan français), Senegal, Togo (then Togo français), Benin (then Dahomey), Algeria, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, and Cambodia. He supported himself, often haphazardly, by selling or bartering his negatives and photographic rights to newspapers, journals, and governmental agencies, such as Paris-Soir and the Agence Économique de la France d’Outre Mer.

The de Menils and Verger met in December 1941 at the home of a mutual acquaintance, French painter Jean Dries (1905–1973), in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Dries, who knew the de Menils from France, had arrived in 1940 to establish a fine art department at the University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina. Verger had arrived in Argentina around the same time as Dries and was working, mostly unpaid, as a staff photographer for the newspapers Argentina Libre and El Mundo Argentino. Verger recollected enjoying several evening dinners and trips to less frequented places with the de Menils.(1) Fellow French expatriates living in South America during the global tumult of the Second World War, they also shared interests in the visual arts and international travel experiences in the United States, French Polynesia, and North Africa. These affinities undoubtedly invigorated their nascent camaraderie.

Verger had visited the Andes in 1939, but he convinced the de Menils of his ambition to return with his Rolleiflex camera to photograph the people in the different towns of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Motivated by their conversations, the de Menils sponsored Verger’s trip back to the Andes. Afterward, around 1944–45, he gifted them two portfolios, nearly 200 gelatin silver prints depicting the drama and dynamism of Andean religious festivals. These images feature in his first major anthropological publication, Fiestas y Danzas en el Cuzco y en los Andes, which he dedicated to the de Menils for their support.(2)

Arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1942, Verger made a trek familiar to him around Lake Titicaca to Puno, Peru, by August. He continued north and ultimately established himself in Lima with photographic work at the Museo Nacional. He was one of many foreign photographers working in the region during the 1940s and was among an active network of professional Peruvian photographers with well-established studio practices, such as Martín Chambi (1891–1973), Juan Manuel Figueroa Aznar (1878–1951), brothers Carlos and Miguel Vargas (1885–1979; 1887–1976), and José Gabriel Gonzáles (1900–1978).

Between 1942 and 1946, when he finally left Peru for Brazil, Verger took thousands of photographs of ancient Andean architecture, regional religious festivals, and portraits of people. His images capture dusty scenes of action and packed crowds, delightful moments of dancing, and processions of people carrying statues of patron saints, all of which emphasize the joy and weight of religious devotion. For Fiestas y Danzas, Verger reformatted some of these images to emphasize specific visual attributes. For example, he significantly cropped his negative of men carrying the heavy platform of a Catholic saint sculpture during the Fiesta de San Santiago in Cusco, Peru. For the version printed in Fiestas y Danzas, which spreads over two pages and 10 x 15 inches (25.5 x 38 cm), he edited out most of the platform to foreground the sweat and agony on the faces of the men. Other photographs picture dancers, musicians, masked characters, and drinkers of chicha with similar visual acuity. His photographs of Qhapaq Qollas, iconic characters wearing knitted wool masks (waq’olllos) with distinctive mustaches, personify their playfully mischievous and confrontational performances during festivals as merchants and llama drivers (llameros) from the towns of Paucartambo and Ayaviri.

Published in 1945, Fiestas y Danzas situates Verger’s images of Andean fiestas within discourses and cultural politics of indigenismo, a modernist movement during the late-19th and 20th centuries intent on elevating marginalized “indigenous” peoples—the different groups of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking rural farmers and pastoralists—as the heart of progress and culture in the Andes. The equitable application of the movement’s ambitions was, however, constrained by entrenched attitudes and a racial hierarchy inherited from the colonial era. A key proponent of indigenismo, Peruvian historian Luis E. Valcárcel (1891–1987) wrote introductions to Fiestas y Danzas and Indians of Peru (1950), Verger’s subsequent book of photography. In Fiestas y Danzas, Valcárcel wrote:

As long as these native multitudes continue to dance one rhythm, uniting their bodies and spirits in one soul, there will be an Indian reality despite ever-increasing intrusions of foreign civilization. The Andine race endures and multiplies. In it are embodied the remote creations of ancient culture, and also absorbed and transformed in it are those emanating from the occidental world from the 16th century to the present day. The Indian has not simply borrowed these extraneous cultural elements, he has made them a part of himself.(3)

Verger’s photographs are visually rich, but as an outsider he was, paradoxically, a representative of the inevitable intrusion of foreign civilization Valcárcel lamented.(4) In this light, Verger’s images of Andean festivals contributed to a strand of documentary ethnographic realism that animated the cultural politics and competing narratives of indigenismo. Notwithstanding its different applications and trajectories during the first half of the 20th century, indigenismo generated an idealized image of the indigenous Andean, one that essentialized the heterogeneous and layered past of Andean civilization discussed in the different sections of this publication.