Stumble on Greatness: Discovering Sergio Larrain
In 1977, while working in my first job as a journalist, I picked up a few LPs that drew my attention to the “slush pile” of advertisers mailings, brought them home and I heard in amazement. the intoxicating music of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974. Obsessed, I traveled to England and wrote the first full magazine article about him in this country, delighted to be able to spread the good news.
I had the same jump of discovery more recently when I came across the photographs of Sergio Larrain. Unfortunately, like Drake, he was already gone when I found him. The occasion was the publication in 2013, a year after Larrain’s death, of a commemorative book full of his photographs by the Aperture Foundation. Aperture followed up this deeply impressive volume with a book of photos taken by Larrain in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso and, this year, with one devoted to his London work.
Like Drake, largely because of a reluctance to promote himself and, more fundamentally, a distant position that permeates art, the Chilean photographer is recognized by his peers but has yet to achieve the wide recognition he is ‘he deserves. Indeed, Larrain gave up his career as a photographer at the end of the 1970s, believing that it hindered his spiritual quest. But before this renunciation, he produced many fascinating images, the most famous of which, of two girls descending the Pasaje Bavestrello, an external staircase in Valparaíso. Larrain considered that the 1952 photo was “the first magical photo ever to appear” from his camera.
In a trance-like balance, he pulled the shutter button to record an image that looked like a dream. He explained: “I was in a state of absolute calm, I was doing what really interested me, that’s why the result was going to 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 Strange”, the appearance of a double in a realistic environment evokes a supernatural sensation that arouses dread. Illumination is crucial for the hallucinatory quality of Larrain’s photography. The trapezoid of light that the front girl enters has material substance, especially compared to the dark shadow on the left.
It is such a pictorial photograph. The shape of this shadow reminds me of the enigmatic green triangle seen through the window of Matisse’s 1916 painting, “The piano lesson. “
And, oddly enough, the lighted floor on which the second daughter is about to walk, like the pink piano top in the Matisse, provides a low horizontal plane that is perpendicular to the dominant verticals. This girl, coming out of the darkness, is holding a glass bottle. With its dark band of liquid at the bottom, it mirrors the Rothko-type wall on the right upside down. It’s a magical detail.
Larrain’s eye has been drawn to the corrugated metal and fence gates on several occasions, both of which are featured in this photo. Perhaps it was the rhythmic repetition that struck a chord. When he gave up photography, he devoted much of his time to yoga and meditation.
Born in 1932 in Santiago, Chile, Sergio Larrain was one of five children from a wealthy family. His father, also named Sergio, was a successful architect and university professor, with whom the young man had a strained relationship. One thing they shared was a refined aesthetic taste: the father conceived in the International style by Le Corbusier, and he sold a Matisse and a Picasso to raise funds for his growing collection of pre-Columbian art.
But the son rejects more and more the bourgeois life of his family. Uprooting himself in Berkeley, where he studied forestry at the University of California, he bought a Leica camera, “not because I wanted to take pictures, but because it was the most beautiful object I could buy.” . Despite this warning, on his return to Santiago (without having obtained a diploma), he decided to take up photography. The death of his younger brother in a horseback accident, however, unsettled the whole family. They traveled together in Europe and the Middle East for a year to recover.
In Florence, Larrain meets the photos of Giuseppe Cavalli, an unfairly overlooked photographer for whom he felt a deep affinity. Cavalli was a poet of solitude and scrutiny. His still lifes are reminiscent of those of Giorgio Morandi, whose contemplative paintings of ordinary objects in muted colors share a sensibility with the uniformly lit compositions of Cavalli. The calmness to which Larrain responded in the older Italian photographer characterizes his image of the two daughters of the Pasaje Bavestrello and much of his work.
Back in Chile after the European tour, Larrain spent a year in a rural town, practicing meditation, donating his possessions, but also – inspired by Cavalli – rekindling his ambition to become a photographer. Back in Santiago, he separated from his family again by dating homeless children. He empathized and, more than that, identified with them. He took many pictures. His pictures attracted the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs of children include many classics.
At the invitation of Cartier-Bresson, Larrain joined in 1959 the cooperative of photojournalists Magnum, based in Paris. It was his dream to be a member of this elite group. Like most of his ambitions, he found the taste bitter when achieved. In 1965, writing from Potosi, Bolivia, where he had left on his own initiative with only a minor assignment, he informed Cartier-Bresson, “I think the rush of journalism – be ready to jump on any story. – all the time – destroys my love and focus for work.
Even more than Cartier-Bresson, whom he loved and venerated as his mentor, Larrain in his art resembles another great photographer, Robert Frank. The year he was invited to join Magnum, Larrain was in London, where Frank had photographed seven or eight years earlier. (Interestingly enough, they both also took photos in Peru; in my opinion Larrain’s are far superior.) Both men documented the banker processions in London, with their bowler hats and brollies; crowds of workers, carrying coal or geese; and especially the fog, which sprinkles their prints in black and white. They sometimes composed their scenes using windows that framed and obscured their subjects.
Larrain ignored the photographs of Robert Frank, still unpublished. Instead, he admired the London photographs of British photographer Bill Brandt. Yet the gray, grainy textures of his images are closer to Frank’s than Brandt’s dark, crisp photographs. Larrain’s images, recently published in the book “Londres. 1959 ”, bear such a resemblance to Frank that in one case – a photograph of commuters crossing a bridge, with a double-decker bus behind them – the images could be taken from the same contact sheet.
Unlike Larrain, Frank could be funny (a scowling Churchill Bulldog stares at the viewer in a crowd of men looking away) or sharp (a worker in the street hoists a load like a man fully equipped with a bowler hat, an umbrella, a suit and a tie trampled without seeing on the sidewalk). Frank’s images are very often sullen, but Frank does not share Larrain’s mysticism.
It may have been detrimental to Larrain’s reputation that he photographed so brilliantly in so many styles that he did not showcase a mark to the world. While in London, very much in the style of Lisette Model, whose images of the rich and the poor in Cannes and New York were exemplary, he sometimes focused on the towering figures that could hold the frame; and, like Model, he slaughtered them from below, exaggerating their sculptural grandeur.
If Frank and Cartier-Bresson also abandon photojournalism, Larrain’s decline is more absolute. He lived as a hermit in a small house in the countryside, where he followed many possible paths to enlightenment. In addition to yoga and meditation, he underwent psychoanalysis, took psychedelic drugs, practiced painting, and attended the Arica School of Knowledge, founded in northern Chile by Oscar Ichazo. Apart from his son, whom he raised alone, he saw fewer and fewer people, until his death in 2012.
When I try to understand the satori he said he was looking for – the Zen Buddhist concept of consciousness that loosely translates to enlightenment – I come back again and again to the photograph of the two girls stepping into the light. Something he said rings true: “A good photograph, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are freed from conventions, obligations, conveniences, competition, and you are free, like a child in his first discovery of reality. You walk around surprised, seeing reality as if it was the first time.
As I study Sergio Larrain’s photographs, I feel the freshness of discovery, the childish excitement of seeing something mundane and remembering that the mundane, if viewed from an unusual angle, can be wonderfully strange and beautiful. .