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Chile Photography: Sergio Larrain

Sergio Larrain was born in Santiago, Chile, in the year 1931.   His family was very wealthy, and his father was an architect and art collector.  Art surrounded him in his home, but Larrain didn’t spend much time admiring or studying it.  Instead, he was a shy boy, who spent a lot of time by himself.

In 1949, Larrain moved to California to attend Berkeley University.  He was studying forestry, but in his spare time he frequented bars, hanging out with musicians and artists.  It was during this time that he became interested in photography and bought a used camera to practice with.  He transferred to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend school.  He used a dark room in the university and found out how much he truly enjoyed photography.  He ended up quitting college to pursue his new-found interest.

Larrain
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In 1951, Larrain’s family spent a year living in Europe and the Middle East.  While there, he became interested in the work of Giuseppe Cavalli, an Italian photographer.  He took pictures of very ordinary, everyday objects.  Larrain tried to imitate this style, but that changed when the family moved back to Chile.

Larrain started to take trips to Valparaiso, a beautiful town on the coast of Chile.  He was mesmerized by everything there.  He loved the intense lines that were seen in the narrow alleys, steep stairways, and the cobblestone streets.  He also appreciated the mix of ancient and modern life that was represented in the city.  The exciting nightlife gave plenty of interesting subjects to photograph.  It was in this town that Larrain said, “miracles started to happen, and my photography became magic”.

Two Girls
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His photographic style seemed to imply that he was always moving, or blended seamlessly into the background.  He would catch subjects half-in, half-out of the frame, or in reflections of a mirror.  He would take pictures as if he was looking through the eyes of the subject.  He had a style that was easily recognizable. 

Soda
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Mirror
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Larrain was invited to work for Magnum, a prestigious photography company, in 1959.  The company had seen pictures of street children from Valparaiso and were impressed by his skills.  After a few years with the company, he felt as if they were trying to turn him into a journalist, instead of a photographer.  He didn’t like the pressure of deadlines, and believed that the quickness of journalism took away from the part of photography that he loved. 

In the 1960s Larrain became a follower of a Bolivian mystic named Oscar Ichazo.  He became focused on reducing his ego and his photography started to expose the corruption, pollution, and the deterioration of the world.  He started to spend more time by himself because he feared what the world was becoming.  He was often described as a hermit.  In the late 1970s, he moved to Tulahuen, a mountain village, where he spent the rest of his life.  He continued to photograph objects, but the movement from his previous period had stopped.  He began taking pictures of still, quiet objects.  He died in 2012.

Book
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In the end, Larrain published a book, titled Valparaiso, in 1991.  His work was then collected in four books and his work was shown in several exhibitions and was used in a 1999 retrospective.  Although he did not spend his entire life devoted to photography, he is still considered to be one of the most influential photographers from Chile.  This proves that anyone can leave a mark on society when they follow their dreams, even if only for a brief time. 

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