“A good image is created by a state of grace. Grace expresses itself when it has been freed from conventions, free like a child in his early discovery of the reality. The game is then to organise the rectangle” – Sergio Larraín Echeñique
Born in Santiago in 1931, the Chilean photographer Sergio Larraín Echeñique was a member of Magnum Photos during the1960s. He is considered to be the most important Chilean photographer in history, making street photography, often of street children, using “shadow and angles in a way few had tried before.”
He grew up in an environment familiar with the arts and culture; his father, Sergio Larraín García Moreno, was one of the most outstanding architects in South America, a friend of painters such as Josef Albers and Roberto Matta.
Between 1949 and 1953, he traveled to the United States where he studied Forest Engineering for a year and a half, initially at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at Ann Arbor University in Michigan. During these years he worked to achieve economic stability, which led him to buy his first camera, a Leica IIIC, which changed his life.
He left school to return to Chile, from where he left again for a family trip through Europe and the Middle East, to try to calm deep pain at the accidental death of his younger brother. This trip helped the artist make the decision to adopt photography as his form of expression. On his return to Santiago, he retired to live in the commune of La Reina, a semi-rural area in those years. He collaborated with institutions such as Hogar de Cristo and Fundación Mi Casa, to support children living on the street. A series of these images were received by Edward Steichen, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who purchased them. Between 1956 and 1959, he worked as a freelance photographer and also for the Brazilian international magazine «O Cruzeiro».
In 1958, he exhibited his photographs at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, along with the paintings of Sheila AW Hicks, an American artist with a scholarship in Chile from the Fullbright Commission.
In 1959 he was awarded a scholarship by the British Council to travel to London for four months, where he made his famous series about the city. That same year, Sergio Larraín met Henri Cartier-Bresson, who proposed that he join the Magnum agency, which supplies photographic material to the major European and North American magazines. He joined the agency as an associate and became a full member in 1961. Larraín settled in Paris, where he collaborated with some of the most prestigious specialised magazines. Highlights include his report of the Sicilian Mafia, his report of the marriage of Farah Diva and the Shah of Iran, and the report chosen by the French magazine Paris Match, where they published 16 color pages on the Juan Fernández Island.
At the beginning of the 1960s, he returned to Chile, with the purpose of delving into the topics that most interested him, without the commercial demands of the international press: the people and surroundings of Valparaíso, which he had already photographed on numerous occasions. He worked with the poet Pablo Neruda, in the making of a book for the Lumen Publishing House in Barcelona, and later to take photographs of Valparaíso that were first published in the DU magazine. Atlantis, in 1966, accompanied by a text by Pablo Neruda.
Much later, in 1991, the Editorial Hazan published the book Valparaíso on the occasion of the exhibition of Les Rencontres de la Photographie de Arles. At this time he photographed the poet’s house in Isla Negra, Chile, work published in his book Una casa en la arena.
In 1965, moved by transcendental meditation and eastern philosophies, he distanced himself from collaborations with Magnum. In 1969 he settled in Arica, in the north of Chile, to follow for three years the teachings of the Bolivian spiritual master Oscar Ichazo.
From 1973, Sergio Larraín moved to Ovalle, to dedicate most of his time to reading, oil painting, meditation, yoga, deepening in personal development and very little to photography.
In 1999, the Valencian Institute of Modern Art, IVAM, from Spain, dedicated a retrospective to him, the success of which caused him to be besieged in the international media. As a result, he demanded that in the future he be kept out of any reflection on his work.
However, until the end he continued to send the agency his contact sheets, with his last negatives for Magnum to guard the set of his photographs.
Sergio Larraín died at his home in Tulahuen near Ovalle, Chile, at the age of 80, from heart complications, accompanied by the peace of his Buddhist faith and his closest collaborators.
Photographs he took in Paris by Notre Dame Cathedral, which revealed scenes of a couple only upon processing, became the basis for Julio Cortázar’s story, “Las Babas del Diablo“, “The Devil’s Drool”, which in turn inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup.