Saturday, May 12, 2007

The books of Sergio Larrain

When I had written about Tony Ray Jones a few posts back, it got me thinking of photographers whose entire “career” in photography is made up of only a few years and yet they were able to produce remarkable bodies of work within that very short time.

For instance, Tony Ray Jones produced an amazing set of pictures over a dozen years and was cut down by Leukemia. Robert Frank worked in photography for about the same amount of time before finding film as the dominant medium for him. Sergio Larrain is another artist that can be placed in that same category. After photographing steadily for approximately seventeen years and producing three major bodies of work, Larrain receded into seclusion in Chile to pursue meditation. Far from communication other than the spiritual, photography is left behind.

He is an artist that flies under the radar for most other than the well informed. His work is not often seen and exposed to wide audiences. His books, other than one, are very rare and difficult to obtain.

The last major exhibition of his work was through the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM) in Spain in 1999 for which there was a very good catalog produced. A retrospective-type catalog, it contains photographs spanning his entire career with essays in both Spanish and English by several authors including Agnes Sire, Pablo Neruda (who was a friend of Larrain’s father), Rene Burri, Josep Vincent Monzo and Robert Bolano. This is the most substantial book of Larrain’s various projects collected under one roof. It is interesting in that through the essays we get to weed through the legend of Sergio and get a slightly closer look at the man and the work.

Sergio Larrain’s first book is the impossible to find El Rectangulo En La Mano published in 1963 to accompany an exhibition in Santiago, Chile. It is a staple bound booklet of 12 folios (a folded sheet of paper) containing 17 images that are mostly from a series he shot of vagabond children in Chile. The copy that I have seen has the last page and image in the book cut out and a quote by Hass (Ernst?) is “whited out.” The owner of that copy thinks this was done by Larrain’s hand. A copy has been found recently and is reported to have the 17th photo still intact with no text “whited out.” The copy that is shown in Martin Parr’s Photobook (page 102) is the same that I have seen and Parr’s description states that it is a book of 16 images. This small rarity gets more mysterious all the time.

It is a wonderful book that teases you into the work of Larrain. You are left wanting more and more. Most would say that it suffers from poor reproductions as they are simple, rather dirty looking letterpress but it contains a great deal of charm in its lo-fi production. If you are ever in Paris, there is a copy at the Romeo Martinez library in the basement of the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie that you can request to see. Also I have been told that MOMA in NYC has copy in their research library. Either would be worth the trip actually.

In 1968 Editions Recontre in Lausanne Switzerland, as part of their L’Atlas des Voyages series, published a book of called Chile. It is, with the exception of two photographs, entirely illustrated with Larrain’s work. This book is much different than the others I will mention as its concept is more illustrative than artistic. The book is meant as an introduction to the country of Chile for non-Chileans so most of the images wind up being more decorative from Larrain than the other books reveal. It is not meant as a showcase for his work. Although there are many great images that are signature Larrain, on the whole, the book is made of images that seem made to fit the tone of the concept rather than the fully engaged, exploratory Larrain we may be familiar with.

Valparaiso, published by Editions Hazan in 1991 is another of the major works that is nearly impossible to find. This beautifully produced title contains most of the photographs of his home country that we may be familiar with. Started in 1957 while traveling with Pablo Nerduda for Du Magazine (published in 1965), it was a project that Larrain would work on for several years. As reflected in the earlier vagabond street children series he originally established his voice with, Larrain challenges the edges of his frames creating new and dynamic compositions. Often choosing vantage points that mimic the viewpoints of the stray dogs that appear in the photos, Larrain wanders and observes the life of this port city. Things get interesting at night when the bars are full of sailors, dancers and desire.

(Curious note to Valparaiso is that the first image in the book before the title page of a young boy with his head cocked to one side is reproduced flopped from the way it appears in El Rectangulo en la Mano.)

The last book of Larrain’s work is the easiest to find, London was published in 1998 by Dewi Lewis. For this title though, there was also a Hazan edition (Londres) in French with a different cover so there are many copies available.

Larrain had received a grant from the British Council which allowed for an eight month visit to London in 1959. This is an interesting body of work for me. There have been comparisons of this work to what Robert Frank accomplished prowling the same territory. It is remarkable how two artists, working in close proximity (6 years), would follow similar instincts in regard to the subject matter and picture making. I find this work to be noticeably different than the Valparaiso or vagabond children series. His vantage point especially, in only one photograph does he drop to the floor for his extremely low vantage point we know from the other work.

I find the over all tone of the work different as well. Perhaps this perception is felt because of the lack of light in London as compared to that of Valparaiso (the light in Chile would probably be blinding in comparison). In the London work, Larrain’s freeform style adopts blur as an additional quality that adds to a sense of his spontaneous reactions to the surroundings. Much in the way we imagine Frank was also excited and responsive to what he found.

Where is a publisher that will take on a definitive book of Sergio Larrain? Further study of this remarkable talent is necessary. As it stands, this is an example of an artist whose work will be severely limited to wider audiences because the books are just too hard to find. (Calmate senior Whisket! Calmate!)

Gerhard Steidl please…stop the presses. Your talents are needed on a different project.

Book Available Here