“A good picture is born from a state of grace. Grace becomes manifest when one is freed from conventions, free as a child in his first discovery of reality. The game is then to organize the triangle.”

Sergio Larrain

What can be more proof of photographic excellency than having Henri Cartier-Bresson buy some of your images? It was in the 1950s when the legendary French photographer not only purchased some photographs Sergio Larrain (1931 – 2013) had taken of Chilean seaport Valparaíso, but also invited him to join his renowned Magnum agency.

Later Larrain would influence Argentine writer Julio Cortázar to write his short-story “Las Babas Del Diablo” which Michelangelo Antonioni turned into his movie “Blow Up”. Everything seemed like a dream-come-true career. Within a few years Sergio Larrain had risen up to claim a place among the world’s most prestigious image-takers working for magazine like Paris Match and Life.

But then at the height of his fame the man who’d abandoned a university career in the USA to become a photographer decided to stop taking pictures. It was after one of his work about the wedding of the Sha of Iran had been turned down, that he opted to retire into the mountains in the north of his native country Chile to lead a life of meditation.

“The book paints a multifaceted picture of this brilliant photographers who has inspired generations with his gift for graceful, poetry-like composition.”

A year after the death of Sergio Larrain at the age of 81 Éditions Xavier Barral published a retrospective collection of this outstanding photographer who’d long been forgotten. The artist himself had agreed on that project to put together his complete works for the first time. The book contains 200 photographs, split up in two sections: “Latin America” and “Europe”. Enriched with personal details such as handwritten letters, copies from notebooks, and meditative texts, the book paints a multifaceted picture of this brilliant photographers who has inspired generations with his gift for graceful, poetry-like compositions.

An image of a traditionally dressed campesina woman in Bolivia taken by Sergio Larrain
Potosí, Bolivie, 1960. © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

People on a sailing boat near the Chilean Island of Chiloe photographed by Sergio Larrain
Entre l’île de Chiloé et Puerto Montt, Chili, 1957. © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos
A portrait of a young boy wearing a hat captured by Sergio Larrain
Santiago, Chili, 1957. © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos

Whether it’s kids in the streets of Chile’s capital Santiago, campesinas in Bolivia, seaside impressions from Chiloé or images of his birth town Valparaíso – Sergio Larrain’s images breathe serenity, depth and simplicity. They are the product of a man who dominates his instrument, the camera, to perfection and has the intuition it takes to capture scenes in a way that touch the viewers heart and emotions. By skillfully tilting the camera Larrain manages to give his images a surprising angle which takes the observer by surprise.

For Sergio Larrain photography was a great adventure. It meant cutting loose from conventions imposed by society, and roam the streets following his own instincts, strolling around like a vagabond. To leave beaten paths searching for something new that he’d no idea of what it would be but that he’d recognize when they appeared – camera in hand ready to take the pictures. In a letter to his nephew Sebastián Donoso, who’d asked him for advice of how to begin taking pictures, Sergio Larrain writes: “The game is to let go, to let the adventure begin. Like a sailboat dropping sails.”

“Follow your own taste and nothing else. You are life and life is what you choose.”

Larrain describes fishing for images as a long and slow process, that requires patience and dedication. It’s about contemplating not only one’s own work looking for the perfect framing and composition, but he considers it equally important to study the images of other master’s of photography. “Don’t ever force things”, Larrain says. Otherwise the image would lose its poetry. “Follow your own taste and nothing else. You are life and life is what you choose. What you do not like, don’t look at it, it’s no good. You’re the only criterion, but still look at everyone else.” These were no words of presumptuousness, but rather advice to develop an own unique visual language. Nurtured by influences from everything that pleases the eye, but signed by own’s own unmistakable authorship.

More information

Sergio Larrain (2013) Photographs: Sergio Larrain, Text: Agnès Sire and Gonzalo Leiva Quijada. 400 pages, 65,00 Euros. Published by Éditions Xavier Barral.

Cover of the book Sergio Larrain published by Éditions Xavier Barral
Sergio Larrain © Éditions Xavier Barral
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