After the success of Sergio Larraín’s exhibition at the most recent Recontres Photographiques d’Arles, in France, the Cartier-Bresson Foundation is presenting, in a very original way and in three levels, an exceptional selection of works by the Chilean photographer, curated by foundation director Agnès Sire.
The career of Sergio Larraín (1931-2012) is unique in that for him photography was inseparable from a profound spiritual reflection connected to the habitual practice of meditation and yoga. Indeed, he used to write that “a good image is born from a state of grace.”
Sergio Larraín’s nomadic, vagabond life1 began in 1949, when he left Chile and his bourgeois, cultivated family—with which he did not identify—and traveled to the United States to pursue his studies. After a long trip to the Middle East and Europe, Larraín returned to his native country and settled there. His earliest work had to do with street children in Santiago. His 1959 encounter, in Paris, with Henri Cartier-Bresson was decisive; the French photographer was, in Larraín’s view, “the absolute master… a genius… someone who is in a category apart, all of his own…” Realizing that his activities as a press photographer (he had been hired by the Magnum Agency) did not leave enough freedom to create, he decided to return to Chile in 1965. After various publishing collaborations (among them El rectángulo de la mano and Una casa en la arena, with photographs of Pablo Neruda’s home), in 1969 Larraín moved to the community of Arica in order to follow there the teachings of Oscar Ichazo,2 and decided to pursue his spiritual quest alone. In 1972 he finally settled in Telahuén, in northern Chile, fleeing from work commissions; he led a discreet life and rejected many exhibition projects (Magnum, nevertheless, continues to exhibit Larraín’s archives). His last exhibition took place in 1999 at the IVAM, in Valencia, Spain, with a catalog prefaced by Roberto Bolaño. The exhibition at the HCB Foundation has been made possible by the long and sustained epistolary relationship between Sergio Larraín and Agnès Sire.
One hundred and twenty-eight black and white photographs, among them an invaluable set of copies of the Magnum Photo collection and some unpublished works, are arranged on two floors. The first floor features several series, such as the Santiago street children (1957-1963); London (1958-1959); Bolivia and Peru (1957-1960); and, above all, the Chilean island of Chiloé (1957-1961). These series attest to the expressive sobriety of Larraín’s photography, as well as the tenderness with which he approached his themes and characters. At the same time, Larraín revealed that it was there, in Chiloé, that his love for photography first developed. There is no morbid curiosity or commercial interest in his work, only a true desire to capture a moment, to “commune” with the passage of time. The aesthetic of Larraín’s images is not the result of a search for beauty in and of itself, but a generous fellow-feeling for all human beings that the photographer transforms into a kind of “dramaturgy” of the framing in two mismatched planes. In Entre la isla de Chiloé y Puerto Montt (1957, Magnum Photo), space is cut into four frames: first, bottom right, two faces, one of them in profile; upper right, the sky and a ship in the distance; upper left, an angle of the ship’s sail; lower left, the ocean. In Isla de Chiloé (1961, Magnum Photo), only the upper portion of the frame is “occupied” by the children, their backs to the camera, which climb into a boat, leaving a good section of the image in darkness. With the striped of the poncho in Potosí (1957) or the stone staircase of Machu Picchu (1960), Larraín seems to have retained the beauty of the abstract detail that, among others, Manuel Álvarez Bravo emphasized in his earlier photographs.
The second floor features a large display case with books and press clippings. Photographs of Rome, Palermo, and Paris (1959) and, especially, the port of Valparaíso (1963) bear witness to Larraín’s love for the frame trimmed, like an exergue, against a second frame that gives it full meaning. Before entering the gallery, a first photograph displays the recurrent way in which Larraín tended to prioritize a large section of the frame, be it horizontal or vertical, as is the case here. A palm tree trunk, its bark in close up, takes over three-fourths of the space, while a woman sitting farther back in the shot reads under a large stone statue, whose head we cannot see, holding a “book” open in its hand. The Valparaíso series is dazzling: there we encounter the port, the night, its staircases, its funicular, its bars, its prostitutes, its transvestites, its strip joints, an atmosphere that Larraín finds “moving” despite its misery. There is no voyeurism, no complacency, but a search for his own deep being and the being of others, in order to love and understand.
In the third floor, a 1995 album with texts (mostly aphorisms), drawings, and photographs by Larraín introduces us into his “personal cosmogony,” which was to absorb him in his later years (celebration of nature and still-life photographs).
1. The subtitle of the exhibition is Vagabondages.
2. Born in 1931 in Bolivia, Ichazo was the creator of a spiritualist theory known as protoanalysis, based in particular on the enneagram (a map modeling human personality). Ichazo was also the founder of the Arica Institute.