Framing a Lost City: Science, Photography & the Making of Machu Picchu

When Hiram Bingham, a historian from Yale University, first saw Machu Picchu in 1911, it was a ruin obscured by overgrowth whose terraces were farmed by a few families. A century later, Machu Picchu is a UNESCO world heritage site visited by more than a million tourists annually. This remarkable transformation began with the photographs that Bingham published in National Geographic magazine, which depicted Machu Picchu as a lost city discovered. Focusing on the practices, technologies, and materializations of Bingham’s three expeditions to Peru (1911, 1912, 1914–1915), this book makes a convincing case that visualization, particularly through the camera, played a decisive role in positioning Machu Picchu as both a scientific discovery and a Peruvian heritage site.

I argue that while Bingham’s expeditions relied on the labor, knowledge, and support of Peruvian elites, intellectuals, and peasants, the practice of scientific witnessing, and photography specifically, converted Machu Picchu into a cultural artifact fashioned from a distinct way of seeing. Drawing on science and technology studies, she situates letter writing, artifact collecting, and photography as important expeditionary practices that helped shape the way we understand Machu Picchu today. I also demonstrate that the photographic evidence was unstable, and, as images circulated worldwide, the “lost city” took on different meanings, especially in Peru, which came to view the site as one of national patrimony in need of protection from expeditions such as Bingham’s.