Puerto Montt, the gateway to Patagonia and Chiloé, Mapuches in the south, the port town of Valparaíso; all sights that capture the attention of foreigners in Chile. But in the case of the Frenchman León Durandin, the images were captured long before tour companies herded visitors to the sights to snap shots with their digital point and shoot cameras.
Photo courtesy leondurandin.cl
Durandin’s portfolio of images captures Chile from Santiago southward starting in 1897 and continuing well into the 1920’s, thus documenting an important moment in Chile’s history. The War of the Pacific (from 1879-1883) against the Peruvians and Bolivians was in recent memory (border disputes still exist today that date back to this conflict) and the booming nitrate market was making the country rich.
Durandin arrived in Santiago in 1897 at the age of 25 with a camera, a bicycle and a solid travel bug. He had been working in Paris, the place of his birth, at Prince of Paris, a provider of machinery used for hospitals, laboratories and most importantly, photography. When the opportunity arose to work for the company’s Santiago office, Durandin did not hesitate.
Upon his arrival he started to take photos of Santiago and its surrounding areas, as well as spread his knowledge and love of photography to those he met. Durandin’s knowledge of photography, which was still an emerging medium at the time, was priceless at the far southern edge of the world.
Later on Durandin would open a store to sell photographic equipment and chemicals, and even published a how-to book in Spanish in 1903 called “Tratado Práctico de Fotografía para el Uso de Aficionados” (A Practical Guide to Photography for Enthusiasts). Moreover, Durandin seemed part scientist, experimenting with different methods to take and develop photos.
Durandin’s work is as diverse as his travels, from bourgeoisie social scenes in the capital to members of the Mapuche indigenous group sitting along a building in Puerto Montt. The consistent theme in his photos is an appreciation of nature, present in some form in almost all of his works. Sometimes it is serene and calm, a shot of a bridge with a still and reflective brook below. Other times the photos document its ferocity, photos of the aftermath of Valparaíso’s 8.6 magnitude earthquake in 1906, which killed nearly 30,000 people.
He put in remarkable effort to reach places much farther from the capital when land transport was unreliable and time consuming. In 1922, to reach Puerto Montt, he traveled 22 hours by train and then headed inland towards the Andes, taking photos of the landscape and people along the way.
Durandin’s work was discovered when a family member brought glass negatives to the Centro del Patrimonio Fotográfica, which restored and conserved the negatives and sponsored the exposition.