Stumbling to Greatness: Exploring Sergio Larrain

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In 1977, while working at my first journalism job, I bought a few LPs that caught my eye on the “slush pile” of publishers’ letters, took them home, and marveled at the intoxicating music of the British singer-songwriter. Nick Drake, who died in 1974. Obsessed, I went to England and wrote the first full-length magazine article about him in that country, excited to be able to spread the good news.

I had the same jolt of discovery recently when I stumbled upon Sergio Larrain’s photographs. Unfortunately, like Drake, he was long gone when I found him. The opportunity was the publication of a comprehensive memorial book featuring his photographs by the Aperture Foundation in 2013, a year after Larrain’s death. Aperture followed up this stunning volume with a photobook by Larrain in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, and this year, With someone dedicated to London studies.

Like Drake, he was recognized by his Chilean photographer colleagues, but had not yet achieved the wide acclaim he deserved, in large part due to his reluctance to promote himself and, more importantly, to a distanced stance that pervaded art. Indeed, Larrain abandoned his photography career in the late 1970s, believing it was hindering his spiritual pursuit. But before this renunciation, she produced many fascinating images, including the most famous of the two girls descending Pasaje Bavestrello, an outdoor staircase in Valparaíso. Larrain considered the picture from 1952 the “first magic photograph” to come out of his camera.

He pressed the shutter button to record a picture with a trance-like balance, which felt like a dream. “I was in absolute calm, doing what really interests me, so the result would be perfect. And then, the other girl suddenly appeared. It was more than perfect, it was a magical moment.” As Freud discussed in his essay “The Uncanny,” the appearance of a couple in a realistic setting evokes a supernatural feeling that evokes fear. Crucial to the hallucinatory quality of Larrain’s photograph is the lighting. The light trapezoid into which the girl in the front comes in has a material substance, especially in relation to the dark shadow on the left.

It’s such a pictorial photo. The shape of this shade reminds me of the mysterious green triangle seen through the window of Matisse’s 1916 painting.Piano Lesson

And oddly enough, the illuminated floor that the second girl is about to step on provides a low horizontal plane perpendicular to the dominant verticals, like the pink piano sheet in Matisse. That girl entering from the darkness is holding a glass bottle in her hand. It reverses the Rothko-like wall on the right, with a band of dark liquid at the bottom. A magical detail.

Larrain’s eye has been drawn repeatedly to the corrugated metal and fence grids, both featured in this photo. Maybe it was the rhythmic repetition that struck a chord. When she quit photography, she devoted most of her time to yoga and meditation.

Born in 1932 in Santiago, Chile, Sergio Larrain was one of five children born to an upper-class family. His father, named Sergio, was a successful architect and university professor with whom the young man had a strained relationship. All they shared was a refined aesthetic pleasure: International Style Le Corbusier and he sold a Matisse and a Picasso to raise money for his growing collection. Pre-Columbian art.

But the son more and more rejected the bourgeois life of his family. Rooting in Berkeley, where he studied forestry at the University of California, he bought a Leica camera, “not because I wanted to photograph it, but because it was the most beautiful object I could buy.” Despite this renunciation, he decided to take up photography after returning to Santiago (without obtaining a diploma). But the death of his younger brother in a riding accident shook the entire family. They traveled together to Europe and the Middle East for a year to recover.

Larrain in Florence, Giuseppe Cavalli, an unfairly overlooked photographer with whom he felt a deep affinity. Cavalli was a poet of solitude and unblinking study. His still lifes call to mind: Giorgio Morandi Thoughtful paintings of mundane objects in muted colors share the same sensibility as Cavalli’s equally lit compositions. The serenity that Larrain responds to in the old Italian photographer characterizes his image of the two girls at Pasaje Bavestrello. and most of his work.

Returning to Chile following a European tour, Larrain spent a year in a rural commune meditating, giving away her belongings, and at the same time rekindling – inspired by Cavalli – her passion to be a photographer. Back in Santiago once again, he further separated himself from his family by hanging out with homeless children. He empathized and moreover identified with them. He took many photos. Her pictures attracted the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson. photos of children Contains many classics.

At Cartier-Bresson’s invitation, Larrain joined the Magnum photojournalists cooperative in Paris in 1959. It was his dream to be a member of this elite group. Like most of his passions, he found it bitter once achieved. Writing from Potosi, Bolivia, in 1965, where he went on his own initiative with only a minor assignment, he told Cartier-Bresson: it destroys my love of work and my concentration.”

Even more so than Cartier-Bresson, whom he loved and respected as a mentor, Larrain bears resemblance to 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 earlier. (Interestingly, they both took pictures in Peru; I think Larrain’s is far superior.) Both men documented a bankers parade in London in their bowler hats and broilers; crowds of workers carrying coal or geese; and most of all, the fog that pulverizes his black and white prints. Sometimes they created using windows that frame their scenes and obscure their subjects.

Larrain was unaware of the unreleased photos of Robert Frank. Instead, she admired British photographer Bill Brandt’s photos of London. Still, the gray, grainy textures of his paintings are closer to Frank’s than to Brandt’s dark, sharp photographs. Pictures of Larrain, recently published in the book “London”. 1959,” there is such a family resemblance to Frank’s that in one case – a photograph of commuters crossing a bridge with a double-decker bus behind them – pictures can be drawn from the same contact sheet.

Unlike Larrain, Frank can be funny (a Churchillian bulldog with a scowl staring at the viewer in a crowd of men looking elsewhere) or tough (as a street worker, a fully equipped man in a bowler hat, umbrella, suit, and tie, he’s a burden. removes). steps on the pavement without seeing it). Frank’s paintings are often moody, but Frank did not share Larrain’s mysticism.

It may have hurt his reputation that Larrain took so many clever photographs in so many different styles that they didn’t present a worldwide trademark image. While in London he focused on commanding figures who could occasionally hold the frame, while in the style of the Lisette Model, exemplified by his paintings of the rich and the poor in Cannes and New York; and, like the Model, he shot them from below, exaggerating their sculptural splendor.

Although Frank and Cartier-Bresson also eventually gave up on photojournalism, Larrain’s retreat was 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 delved into psychoanalysis, took psychedelic drugs, painted and followed the Arica School of Knowledge, founded by Oscar Ichazo in northern Chile. Apart from his son, whom he raised on his own, he saw fewer and fewer people until his death in 2012.

As I try to understand the satori he says he’s looking for—the Zen Buddhist concept of awareness loosely translated as enlightenment—I come back again and again to the photo of two girls entering the light. One thing he says turns out to be true: “Good photography, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are free from contracts, obligations, conveniences, competition, and free like a child who first discovered reality. You walk around in amazement, as if seeing the truth for the first time.”

As I review Sergio Larrain’s photographs, I feel the freshness of discovery, the childlike excitement of seeing something ordinary, and a reminder to myself that when viewed from an unusual angle, it can be unusually strange and beautiful.

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