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Sergio Larrain: Valparaiso

Posted on 29 Jan 2017

The new, expanded 'Valparaiso' is a haunting visual evocation of Chile's Pacific Coast port, as well as a philosophical handbook for spiritually enlightened living.

The port by night. Valparaiso shimmered across the night of the world, as Pablo Neruda wrote in his text accompanying Larrain's photographs. [Credit: Valparaíso, 1963, © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos]

“A good image is created by a state of grace,” Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain once said, and he spent much of his life in the pursuit of that elusive condition. His book Valparaiso, evoking the history and hidden currents of life in Chile’s Pacific coast port, was originally published by Editions Hazan in 1991. Two years later Larrain compiled the materials for an expanded version, though he didn’t want it published in his lifetime. Larrain died in 2012 and that book has finally arrived. With its mix of photography and Larrain’s handwritten notes, poems and letters, as well as an exquisitely-crafted essay by his friend and Valparaiso-dweller, the poet Pablo Neruda, it amounts to a philosophical design for living. His images of what he called “a miserable and beautiful port” were taken from a body of photographs compiled between 1952 and 1992, and range from brooding panoramas of docks and ocean to quickly-grabbed frames of barbers, fishmongers, rain-dripping flights of steps, wild flowers, stray cats and dogs, young girls, wandering sailors, a wristwatch or a window-frame, and glimpses of a raucous nightlife. In between, Larrain adds notes on his personal spiritual quest as well as an ecological prescription to rescue a planet spinning out of control.

Leaves and steps. Larrain was constantly fascinated by the city's countless steps and staircases. [Credit: Valparaíso, 1978, © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos]

Larrain had a gift for unlocking the teeming secret lives of Valparaiso. [Credit: Valparaíso, 1963, © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos]

Guided by his personal search for “satori”, the Zen Buddhist term for attaining an understanding of one’s own true nature, since the late Seventies Larrain had been living in the remote mountains of Tulahuén, and spoke of developing his craft “like a gardener, no pushing, no forcing, just care and peace.” He had been born in 1931 in Santiago de Chile, the son of architect Sergio Larrain Garcia-Moreno, and took up photography almost by chance in 1949, when he’d gone to study forestry at the University of California in Berkeley. He took this course, he wrote, because “I wanted to live in the south of Chile, where rivers and forests were intact”, places which had so far avoided the depredations of “this predator, called man”. It was in California that he spotted a Leica camera in a shop window and bought it – “not because I wanted to do photos, but because it was the most beautiful object I saw that one could buy,” as he put it. He moved to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he began learning to play the flute (“I thought I could earn my living by playing it in cafés”), but he also had access to a photographic laboratory, where he taught himself the techniques of developing, printing and enlarging photos.

In the mid-Fifties he began working as a freelance photographer. He was hired by a Brazilian magazine, O Cruzeiro, and in 1958 the British Council awarded him a grant to take a portfolio of pictures of London. His work caught the eye of the pathfinding photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who urged Larrain to work for Magnum Photos which he’d co-founded in Paris in 1947. Larrain joined Magnum in 1959, and successfully carried out the prickly assignment of photographing mafia boss Giuseppe Russo, wanted for murder by Interpol, in Sicily. He worked for Magnum until 1962, when he returned to Chile and published El Rectángulo en la Mano [Rectangle in Hand] and Una Casa en la Arena [A House in the Sand], the latter about Neruda’s house on Isla Negra, to which the poet contributed some text. Larrain and Neruda planned to collaborate on a book about Valparaiso as early as 1963, though the world had to wait until 1991 to see it.

Larrain turned away from photography after he met Bolivian personal development guru Oscar Ichazo in the late Sixties, but never lost his understanding of his art. As he wrote in a celebrated letter to his nephew, an aspiring photographer, in 1982, “leave the world you know, find your ways into places and things you’ve never seen, allow your own desires to guide you… And pictures will steal up on you, like ghosts; take them.”

Adam Sweeting

Further Reading
The Guardian’s obituary of Larrain
Apollo magazine article about a 2014 Larrain exhibition in Chile
Essay on Larrain from the Barbican’s Strange and Familiar exhibition, 2016

Sergio Larrain: Valparaiso

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