Under layers of dust and disorder lay the ruins of what once was Eugène Courret’s Fotografía Central photography studio. History does not stop; a cumbia song heard in the distance somehow explains this drastic transformation. Between 1935 and this December 2015 afternoon, Lima has changed in every possible way.The abandoned space is magical. To inhabit it again is a historical experience that is beyond me. Its broken thatch and cement walls reveal traces of the past; an old wall paper is exposed, inviting us to imagine what has been. At home I see old pictures of the studio, I seek information: the places where light would illuminate the subjects, the height of the ceilings and I imagine the place. In the virtual archive of the National Library I find a picture of my great-grandmother in her wedding dress and I understand that, somehow, a part of me was also there. Arturo Talavera arrives from Mexico to help me develop wet plate collodion pictures, an old photographic process also used by Courret in his studio. We work with natural light, old cameras and chemicals we ourselves mix. After four days, not a single picture has come out. Arturo, the expert, performs tests to see if the problem is in the camera, in the collodion that is not ripe or is expired, in the silver nitrate or the fixative that we changed for cyanide. Or maybe it is the darkroom that lets some light in. We moved the darkroom to a more protected area and changed all the chemicals once more to rule each one out. It seems that the silver nitrate, contaminated with dust particles, is causing the errors. We boil it and place it back again to solve the problem.We work for fifteen days and the experience brings the evolution of photography to my mind. While I breathe under the focusing cloth that I drape over my head to see the inverted image through the camera lens, I start to better understand photography. Time and light, the image as true as that of a mirror. One hundred and fifty years have reduced exposure times, and our patience. History now has different parameters.After several tries, the images finally start to appear. All the effort gives each photo a special value. I keep them all, flawed or not, since mistakes are part of the project. I clean the glass plates, pour the collodion, sensitize the emulsion, bring into frame, expose, measure the time and develop. Today, three months after completing the project, the ambrotypes, tintypes and negatives take me back, with their magical voices, to those December days. I wonder what Courret would think if he came back and saw what has become of his studio. He would stand on the balcony and be surprised at the way Jirón de la Unión looks, so different, bustling, with lights and people of an informal Lima unknown to him. I think he'd run for his camera, as I did many times during those two weeks.
Artist Astrid Jahnsen’s interest in the Fotografía Central photographic studio founded by the Courret brothers and closed nearly 60 years later by Adolph Dubreuil can be traced in several directions. Her interest in history is certainly one of them, but her love for the connection with the past, which photography makes possible, should also be mentioned as well.In December 2015, the artist found herself with the opportunity of entering the old studio to photograph it as it was 80 years after its closure. It was certainly a liminal experience: Astrid used old photographic techniques –wet collodion glass plates that she made into negatives, ambrotypes and tintypes– to question a space that was central to Peruvian photography and to the construction of identities and mindsets that marked the history of the country and now barely survive in some old family albums. The old camera and photographic processes act as a threshold through which the artist looks at the present in search for traces of the past, but it can only hint at a faded image of an era and a culture that lacks the capacity to be awed by its own past. Portrayed with these techniques, the ruins of Fotografía Central remind us of those old science fiction movies in which an anomaly in the space-time continuum allows the characters to peek, as through a veil, at the flow of time in another epoch. The negatives, ambrotypes and tintypes taken by Astrid Jahnsen in what once was Fotografía Central, this present-as-seen-through-the-veil-the-past, can tell us nothing of the dream world the backdrops and props of t h e old photo studio helped generate; but in this vain attempt to rescue that world from the past, both melancholy and oblivion seem to give rise to a narrative that purports to be, paradoxically, the beginning of the abolition of oblivion itself. After this, Astrid also organized a street march on the public space surrounding the studio with life-size reproductions of several of the characters portrayed by Courret, seeking to close the wide gap that time has created between the thousands of personal stories captured in Courret’s photographs and the Lima of today. The gesture of momentarily reviving those people who walked these same streets one hundred and fifty years ago to make them converse quietly with today’s Limeans, is equivalent to organizing a protest march against oblivion. When we think of it from the perspective of its duration in time, the act of sitting for a portrait is an exercise in anticipated nostalgia. For nearly 70 years, members of Limean high society attended Eugenio Courret’s Fotografía Central photography studio to be portrayed. Thousands of people of several generations posed for him with a longing that combined the construction of their identity with the fight against the passing of time. Today, much of the Courret’s archive is lost.The studio’s beautiful art nouveau façade in the first block of Jirón of the Union survives in a place that now tends to ignore it. The dynamics of the urban space around the studio have changed completely: it responds now to a recent history of population explosion and migration, of social and cultural changes in which the high society that attended the studio to pose for Mr. Courret’s lens no longer exists. Carlo Trivelli