Introspection

Every once in a blue moon, I record a new podcast episode. This one was inspired by reading Sergio Larraín’s photobook Valparaiso, and the strange handwritten notes the photographer put on the pages. In this episode, I try to find out why the photographer quit fame—in pursuit of yoga and solitude.

You can listen below—or click “Read more” to read the transcript.

Sergio Larraín was never quite a star. But he was a great photographer, and a successful one at that. The Chilean was self-taught; picked up his camera skills during a trip through Europe in the 1950s.

When he was 25, the Museum of Modern Art had bought two of his pictures. When he was 27, his work had impressed Henri Cartier-Bresson so much that he invited him to join Magnum.

At 41, he stopped taking pictures.

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Most art is public. It is performed, exhibited, broadcast. But photography is arguably the most public art of them all: photos are easily reproduced and quickly consumed. Great photography also reveals something: a photographer’s unique vision, their particular way of seeing the world.

Sergio Larraín’s photos are celebrated for a reason. He took black and white shots with a soul: Masterful photos that captured not just a slice of time but also a feeling. I see in them a sense of wonder about what he was discovering—an almost giddy excitement about his surrounding. It seems that he had to capture it, and he was really, really good at that.

This is most obvious in the book ‘Valparaiso’, which is considered Larraín’s masterpiece: Its photos are a hypnotic vision of the Chilean port city, surreal in their clarity, best described as magically realist. We see a city of concrete walls and narrow stairs, pictures full of children, street dogs, and mysterious silhouettes. The sea always glistenes in the background.

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‘Valparaiso’ is one of just four books Larraín ever published. It started as a magazine assignment in the 1960s, when he would hang out in the city with the poet Pablo Neruda. Over time, documenting Valparaiso became more than that, a long-term personal project, but it wasn’t before 1991—which is 30 years later—that he turned the photos into a book. What had happened in between is just as fascinating as the photos.

At the cusp of fame, Larraín had met a Bolivian guru, Oscar Ichazo, and joined his school. Ichazo’s teachings are a bit too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say that his school claims to help people find “pristine enlightenment”. Larraín was smitten.

“That’s where he started to distance himself from photography”, recounts his ex wife Paz Huneeus in an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Segunda from 2012. She describes a fundamental change in personality, and a deliberate turn away from art and fame: “He preferred a life of mysticism and began practicing yoga”, she remembers. The photographer started dressing in all white, moved to a remote mountain village, and began living in a small house, apparently even with group of disciples. His career as a photographer was effectively over.

Larraín’s mysticism is visible in his book about Valparaiso: The photo pages are interspersed with handwritten notes, sometimes just one word, sometimes entire manifestos:

We are going towards a garbage deposit turrning (sic!) around the sun, inhabited (sic!) by millions and millions of people attacking and robing (sic!) each other permanently, forever.. hell, degradation.

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I don’t think Larraín, would change his life so drastically just because he met a guru. I think the journey began with his photography. Because taking photos does something to people.

Analogous to the outward-facing nature of the art comes an inward-facing disposition to reflect. To ponder what you’re shooting, and why. Larraín roamed the streets, shot beautiful pictures of workers, children, animals. These photos must have affected him.

I know that because there’s a surviving letter of his from 1983. It is to his nephew, who had written him to ask for advice on becoming a photographer. The answer is quite remarkable.

First, Larraín recommends going to the city where he shot his best work:

Valparaiso is always beautiful, get lost in the magic, get lost for days up and down its slopes and streets, sleep in a sleeping bag, soak in reality—like a swimmer in the water—and let nothing conventional distract you.

It’s beautifully written, and full of introspection. But what I find the most interesting is the bit about staying focused, about not letting the conventional distract you. He goes on:

It’s about vagabonding, sitting down under a tree anywhere. It’s about wandering in the universe by yourself: you will start looking again. The conventional world puts a veil over your eyes, it’s a matter of taking it off during your time as a photographer.

I think that insight, that introspection is what made Larraín’s photos so great. He looked right past the conventional, saw the exceptional in a gritty, everyday life.

Yet I also think that the clarity shocked him. When that veil was lifted, he saw a reality full of injustice. How much the walls crumbled and that the sea was but a backdrop for poverty. His son confirms that later in the same newspaper interview: “The injustice wore him down.” Clarity is a double-edged sword. (Keep that in mind when you pick up your camera.)