Stumbling upon Greatness: Discovering Sergio Larrain
In 1977, when I was working in my first journalistic job, I picked up a couple of LPs that caught my eye on the “muddy pile” of publicist mailings, took them home and was amazed to hear the English singer’s rousing music -Songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974. Obsessed, I traveled to England and wrote the first full-length magazine article in this country about him, excited that I could spread the good news.
I had the same push of discovery recently when I stumbled upon Sergio Larrain’s photographs. Unfortunately, like Drake, he was gone when I found him. The occasion was the publication of an extensive memory book of his photographs by the Aperture Foundation in 2013, one year after Larrain’s death. Aperture followed this deeply impressive volume with a book of pictures Larrain captured in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, and this year one dedicated to his London work.
Like Drake, the Chilean photographer was largely recognized by his peers for his reluctance to promote himself and, most importantly, a detached stance that permeates the art, but has yet to garner the broad recognition he deserves. In fact, Larrain gave up his photography career in the late 1970s because he believed it was hindering his spiritual quest. But before doing so, he produced many fascinating images, including his most famous, of two girls descending the Pasaje Bavestrello, an outside staircase in Valparaíso. Larrain considered the 1952 picture to be “the first magical photo ever to appear on his camera.”
In a trance-like equilibrium, he pressed the shutter button to capture what felt like a dream. He explained, “I was in a state of absolute calm and doing whatever I really wanted to do, which is why the result should be perfect. And then the other girl appeared out of nowhere. It was more than perfect, it was a magical moment. ”As Freud argued in his essay“ The Unheimliche, ”the appearance of a doppelganger in a realistic setting evokes a supernatural sensation that arouses fear. The lighting is decisive for the hallucinatory quality of Larrain’s photography. The trapezoid of light that the girl enters in front has a material substance, especially in relation to the dark shadow on the left.
It’s such a picturesque photo. The shape of this shadow reminds me of the enigmatic green triangle that you see through the window of Matisse’s painting “The Piano Lesson” from 1916.
And strangely enough, the lighted floor that the second girl will step on, like the pink piano ceiling in the Matisse, offers a low horizontal plane perpendicular to the dominant verticals. This girl who comes in from the dark is holding a glass bottle. With its dark band of liquid at the bottom, it mirrors the Rothko-like wall on the right. It’s a magical detail.
Larrain’s gaze was repeatedly drawn to corrugated iron and wire fence, both of which can be seen in this photo. Perhaps it was the rhythmic repetition that hit a nerve. When he gave up photography, he devoted much of his time to yoga and meditation.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1932, Sergio Larrain was one of five children of an upper-class family. His father, also called Sergio, was a successful architect and university professor with whom the younger man had a strained relationship. They shared a refined aesthetic taste: their father designed in Le Corbusier’s international style, and he sold a Matisse and a Picasso to raise money for his growing collection of pre-Columbian art.
But the son increasingly rejected the civil life of his family. He uprooted himself to Berkeley, where he studied forestry at the University of California, and bought a Leica camera “not because I wanted to take pictures, but because it was the nicest item I could buy.” Despite this disclaimer, he decided to take photos after his return to Santiago (without a degree). However, the death of his younger brother in a riding accident let go of the whole family. Together they traveled to Europe and the Middle East for a year to recover.
In Florence, Larrain encountered the pictures of Giuseppe Cavalli, an unjustifiably overlooked photographer with whom he felt a deep connection. Cavalli was a poet of solitude and tireless trial. His still lifes are reminiscent of those of Giorgio Morandi, whose contemplative painting of ordinary objects in muted colors shares a sensitivity with Cavalli’s evenly illuminated compositions. The silence to which Larrain reacted to the older Italian photographer shapes his image of the two girls in the Pasaje Bavestrello and many of his works.
Back in Chile after the European tour, Larrain spent a year in a rural community, practicing meditation, giving away his possessions, but also – inspired by Cavalli – enlivening his ambition to become a photographer. When he returned to Santiago, he further separated from his family by being with homeless children. He had empathy and identified with them. He took a lot of photos. His pictures caught the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose own children’s photographs contain many classics.
At the invitation of Cartier-Bresson, Larrain joined the Paris-based photojournalist cooperative Magnum in 1959. It had been his dream to be a member of this elite group. Like most of his ambitions, once reached, it found the taste bitter. In 1965 he wrote from Potosi, Bolivia, where he had gone on his own initiative with just a small assignment, telling Cartier-Bresson: “I have a feeling that the hustle and bustle of journalism – ready to jump on every story – the whole Time – destroys my love and concentration for work. “
Even more than Cartier-Bresson, whom he loved and adored as his mentor, Larrain resembles another great photographer, Robert Frank, in his art. The year he was invited to Magnum, Larrain was in London, where Frank had photographed seven or eight years ago. (Interestingly, they both took photos in Peru; Larrain’s are far superior in my opinion.) Both men documented the processions of bankers with their bowler hats and brollies in London; the masses of working people carrying coal or geese; and above all the fog that pulverizes her black and white prints. Sometimes they composed their scenes using windows that framed and darkened their subjects.
Larrain was unfamiliar with Robert Frank’s unpublished photographs. Instead, he admired the London photographs by British photographer Bill Brandt. Nevertheless, the gray, grainy textures of his pictures are closer to Frank than to the dark, sharp photographs by Brandt. Larrain’s pictures, which were recently published in the book “London. 1959 “has such a family resemblance to Franks that in one case – a photo of commuters crossing a bridge with a double-decker bus behind them – the images can come from the same contact sheet.
In contrast to Larrain, Frank could be funny (a grim Churchillian bulldog stares at the viewer in a crowd of men looking elsewhere) or astute (a worker on the street lifts a load like a man with a bowler hat, umbrella, suit and tie is fitted steps by not seeing anything on the sidewalk). Frank’s pictures are often moody, but Frank didn’t share Larrain’s mystique.
It may have been detrimental to Larrain’s reputation that he photographed so brilliantly in so many styles that he did not present the world with a characteristic perspective. In London, entirely in the style of Lisette Model, whose pictures of the rich and poor in Cannes and New York were exemplary, he concentrated at times on commanding figures who could hold the frame; and like Model, he shot her from below and exaggerated her statuesque splendor.
Although Frank and Cartier-Bresson eventually gave up photojournalism as well, Larrain’s withdrawal was more absolute. He lived as a hermit in a small house in the country where he took many possible avenues to enlightenment. In addition to yoga and meditation, he underwent psychoanalysis, took psychedelic drugs, practiced painting and followed the Arica School of Knowledge founded by Oscar Ichazo in northern Chile. Apart from his son, whom he raised alone, he saw fewer and fewer people until his death in 2012.
Whenever I try to fathom the satori he said he was looking for – the Zen Buddhist concept of consciousness, which loosely translated as enlightenment – I keep coming back to the photo of the two girls in the light to step. Something he said sounds true: “Good photography, or any other manifestation of man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when one is freed from convention, obligations, convenience, competition and free like a child at his first discovery of reality. You walk around surprised and see reality as if for the first time. ”
When I study Sergio Larrain’s photographs, I feel the freshness of discovery, the childlike excitement of seeing something everyday, and I remember that the everyday can be wonderfully alien and beautiful when viewed from an unusual angle.