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.”
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