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Why a Chilean photographer quit fame in pursuit of mysticism and solitude.

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Valparaiso

Sergio Larraín was never quite a star. But he was a great photographer. Self taught, the Chilean picked up his camera skills during a trip through Europe in the 1950s. When he was 25, the Museum of Modern Art bought two of Larraín’s photographs. At 27, Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to join the prestigious photo agency Magnum. At 41, he stopped taking pictures.

Sergio Larraín’s black and white shots have soul. They capture not just slices of time but feelings of time; Larraín evokes the taste of the places he discovered. In his book Valparaiso — considered Larraín’s masterpiece — we see a hypnotic vision of the Chilean port city. Full of sensory cues, Larraín carries us in giddy excitement through grainy photos and surreal streets. We see a city of concrete walls and narrow stairs, pictures full of children, alley dogs, and mysterious silhouettes. The sea always glistens in the background. There’s possibility, there’s life, there’s magic. Photos for magical realism.

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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][image_carousel_alternative images=”290,289,288,285″ onclick=”lightbox” items=”1″ items_on_small_screens=”3″ navigation=”1″ slide_by=”by_page” navigation_style=”2″ slide_number_status=”1″ style=”1″ fade=”1″ lazyload=”1″ img_size=”large” css_class=”dark”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][vc_column_text]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 which purported to guide people in search of “pristine enlightenment”. Larraín was smitten.

“That’s where he started to distance himself from photography”, recounts his ex-wife Paz Huneeus in a 2012 interview with the Chilean newspaper La Segunda. “He preferred a life of mysticism and began practicing yoga.”

Larraín turned away from art and fame. He started dressing in all white, moved to a remote mountain village, and inhabited a small house, apparently even with group of disciples. His career as a photographer was effectively over.

Larraín’s mysticism shines through in Valparaiso. The photos are interspersed with handwritten notes, sometimes consisting of just one word like “tranquility”, sometimes entire manifestos:

We are going towards a garbage deposit turning around the sun, inhabited by millions and millions of people attacking and robbing each other permanently, forever … hell, degradation.

Was Larraín’s meeting with the guru Ichazo enough alone to spur such drastic life changes? It had a role, but I think Larraín’s journey began with his photography. 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. The photos affected him.

In 1982, Larraín’s nephew wrote a letter asking for advice on becoming a photographer. Larraín’s response is beautiful, and full of introspection. One must stay steady, humble and focused. Conventional cannot distract you.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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