Chile’s most celebrated photographer, Sergio Larraín, dies at 81

He photographed Neruda, worked for Magnum Photos and wowed Henri Cartier Bresson – but spent most of his life as a private recluse. El País remembers Sergio Larraín.

The following is a full translation of an obituary that appeared in Spain’s El País on Wednesday, February 8, 2012.
Sergio Larraín, Chile’s most celebrated photographer and former member of Magnum, passed away on Tuesday at his house in Tulahuén, Chile, aged 81.
After rising to fame in just two decades, he turned his back on the photography world in the early 1970s. His work, which hung in museums such as the MoMA, featured issues of social injustice and included portraits of key personalities of his era, such as Pablo Neruda and Pelé.
“The game is starting the adventure, like a sailor letting out the sails,” he wrote to his nephew Sebastián Donoso in a 1982 letter about his work, quoted today [February 8] in Chilean newspaper La Tercera.
“Wander and wander to unknown places, and when you’re tired, sit down underneath a tree, buy a banana or some bread and get on a train, go someplace that takes your fancy, and look, and draw, too, and look. Leave the known world, enter into the things you’ve never seen, let your desires carry you, keep going from one place to another, to wherever you like. Little by little you’ll find things and see images, and you take them, like ghosts.” The letter appears today on many blogs and photography forums, as a first-person testimony from someone who retired from the world.
Larraín was born in Santiago de Chile in 1931, to a well-off family. He was able to study forestry at Berkeley in California. His Leica camera pulled him away from his studies. “The most important thing is to have a machine you like, the one you like most,” he confessed to his nephew in that same letter, “because it’s about being happy with the form, with what you have in your hands, and the tool is crucial for a tradesman, it’s basic, it’s indispensable, nothing more.”
Social injustice would be a recurrent theme in his work. His photography had a marked style ever since his first important feature, which looked at the marginalized children who lived on the banks of the Río Mapocho [in Santiago]. As a photographer, he made himself invisible. The subjects don’t seem to have changed their stance despite the man with a camera in his hand, framing low-angle shots unconventionally from ground level.
From the start, his photographs were received more than well. He appeared in the Latin American art collection at the MoMA and won a scholarship from the British Council in 1958, which enabled him to shoot a feature on London. The feature impressed Henri Cartier Bresson, who held the keys to the Mount Olympus of photography: Magnum Photos. But to enter this select club, he had to pass one test. The Frenchman gave the Chilean an almost impossible mission: to photograph Giuseppe Russo, an Italian Mafioso wanted by police and accused of several murders.
Larraín kept his cool and began an investigation in Rome which would take him as far as Sicily, taking photo after photo of everything he saw, until he finally found Russo in Caltanissetta. He spent fifteen days with the bodyguards, outside the circle of trust, without picking up a camera. The photographer passed himself off as a simple art aficionado and made himself so invisible that none of the entourage batted an eyelid when he finally snapped a picture of the mafia boss with a 35 mm Leica. The pictures were published in Life, Paris Match and all the top tier magazines. Larraín was accepted into Magnum in 1962, three years later.
The photographer had it all. He had eye, he had talent; he published his first book, El Rectángulo en la Mano (“The Rectangle in the Hand”). He worked for the best agency, which opened doors for him to photograph Pablo Neruda and Pelé; he published features on social exclusion, dissected the city of Valparaíso, and photographed Algeria in its break from colonialism. Some even said that he inspired Julio Cortázar to write the story Las Babas del Diablo (“The Devil’s Drool”).
But in 1970, Larraín got tired of it all. He retreated inside himself after meeting the Bolivian Óscar Ichazo, whose spiritual message led him to isolation. He left Magnum, took back all his negatives and burned them. Part of his work was saved thanks to copies that were jealously guarded by his colleague at the agency, the Czech Josef Koudelka.
From then on he spent most of his life in the mountains, an inward-looking recluse who taught meditation and yoga. He would not leave retirement, even for a great retrospective of his work at the Valencia Modern Art Institute in 1999. Those who visited him to ask about his past, like journalist Verónica Torres – who wrote one of the best features on the master for Chilean magazine The Clinic – only received metaphysical answers and a copy of one of the publications he himself edited. His photographs, developed in a dark room installed in the basement of his house, were only seen by those closest to him. Thus he spent a large part of his life.
By Mokhtar Atitar, El País. Translated by This is Chile. Original Spanish article here.