Popsicle #46: The letters of Sergio Larrain

I never think about photography…it doesn’t interest me.” Henri Catier-Bresson, 2003

Maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.” Robert Frank, 2008

Why did two of the most legendary photographers of the twentieth century give up on photography? I found myself asking this question often while viewing the beautiful new retrospective monograph, Sergio Larrain, published by Aperture.

Larrain was a recluse. After little more than a decade of professional practice, he gave up photography in the early 1970’s to live in the Chilean countryside and practice yoga. His primary form of creative expression during these years was letter writing. I recently spoke with Joseph Koudelka who reminisced about the barrage of letters Larrain would send him and his fellow Magnum photographers proselytizing his spiritual practice. Koudelka was clearly unaffected by these letters, but I wonder how Cartier-Bresson felt? Cartier-Bresson had great respect for Larrain. In fact, it was Cartier-Bresson who invited Larrain into Magnum in 1959. The Aperture book reproduces a couple of letters that Larrain wrote to Cartier-Bresson. This one was written in 1960, a year after Larrain became a full member of Magnum:

Dear Henri,

Thank you for your little note. I am always happy to hear from you. Here I am, mostly writing…doing [few] photographs.
I am puzzled…

I love photography as a visual art…as a painter loves painting, and [I] like to practice it in that way…work that sales [easy to sale] is an adaptation for me. It is like doing posters for a painter….at least I feel I lose my time.

Good photography is hard to do and takes much time for doing it. I [tried to adapt] myself since I entered your group in order to learn and get [published]…but I want to get serious again…there is the problem of markets…of getting published, of earning money…I am puzzled as I tell you and would like to find a way out of working in a level vital for me…I can’t adapt myself longer…so I write…So I think and meditate…waiting for a clear direction to grow in me…

Good bye, my love for you


Three years later, Larrain wrote Cartier-Bresson another letter in which he seems more confident in taking the uncommercial path:

I try to do only work that I really care for. It is the only way for keeping me alive photographically, and I take as much time as I [need]. I keep myself in a slow peace, with much time for myself and doing other things, and see how photography develops…if it continues to develop… I do what I want the way I want, I feel that the rushing of journalism – being ready to jump on any story, all the time – destroy my love and concentration for work.

Unfortunately the book does not reproduce any of Larrain’s letters to Cartier-Bresson or other photographers after he quit photography in the early 1970’s. But it does include a 1987 letter he wrote to the book’s editor, Agnès Sire, a former art director at Magnum and current director of Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson. Here are some excerpts:

Good photography, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are delivered from conventions, obligations, convenience, competition, and you are free, like a child in his first discovery of reality. You walk around in surprise, seeing reality as if [it is] for the first time….

That is why people that do creative work have to isolate themselves, they are all hermits, one way or another….

In Magnum we [saw that] with Bruce [Davidson] for example. When he just came, it was pure poetry his NY gang and what he did at that time. He got, from there, a contract with Vogue NY, as I remember, to do 4 stories a year, he got money, and the miracle has gone forever…sometimes it came back, but never [like] in the beginning…then how do you keep the light alive?

The art is to live in happiness, with love, with truth, with purity, not swallowed by mechanization…Henri did preserve that for many years.

I don’t know if Cartier-Bresson’s decision to give up photography was influenced by Sergio Larrain, but Larrain did seem to have an acute understanding of the way success corrupts artist vision. “The photographer’s tragedy is that once he achieves a certain level of quality or fame, he wants to continue and he gets completely lost,” said Larrain in a rare interview in 1976.

Another photographer equally distrustful of success is Robert Frank. In the introduction to Sergio Larrain, Agnès Sire writes about this connection:

Larrain has often been called the ‘Latin American Robert Frank’ and it is true that they shared the same desire to make room for an inner life, while continuing to integrate the heritage of classic documentary photography. Both of them also chose to turn away from photojournalism when they were quite young in order to move on to something else, and both believed that success (including and above all in the press) is dangerous for the poet.

What is peculiar about Larrain is that he had nowhere near the same level of success as Frank or Cartier-Bresson when he gave up photography. And while I very much like a number of the photographs in Sergio Larrain, I don’t think his work reached the same level of either of these masters. Nevertheless, Sergio Larrain was easily one of my favorite photo books of the year. But a large part of my admiration for the book is my fascination with Larrain’s decision to quit photography. In some ways, this desire is expressed in Larrain’s best pictures, such as the two pictures depicted on the front and rear of the book:

CHILE. Valparaiso. Passage Bavestrello. 1952.

But ultimately the best expression of Larrain’s desire to retreat is his letter writing. Here is another passage from Larrain’s 1987 letter to Agnès Sire:

You see, in our work of hunters of miracles we have the happiness of the magic, but also the impossibility to control it…we have to be open to the muse, as they used to say … and keep eating, clothing, paying the rent…etc. I suppose it has always been like this, when the kayak hunters went to the sea, they never knew if they were going to find the whales or a storm…when we try to control things completely, boredom establish its reign; and we degrade…and at the same time, life has to keep going, always…that is why to make a good use of the hunt [we need] wisdom. To get oil for the lamps, leather for the shoes and clothing, [to] make harpoons with the bones, etc. To keep this miracle of life, in happiness, in tenderness, forming children, preserving elders, listening elders…

In the eternal moment which is reality Agnès, you have to give time to rest, to renew, as with the land, if you exhaust it, by permanently asking fruits, you disorganise the rhythm…the breathing…Silence, peace and loneliness are necessary to receive inspiration, [to] be empty for the new…for the reign to come, daily…adios.

With those words as inspiration, I think I’ll say adios to these weekly Popsicle posts. I’m wiped out after the recent Texas Triangle marathon (shooting, exhibition and publication in less than a month) and need a break from these weekly assignments. While it is frustrating to only complete 46 of the 52 posts, it isn’t like I’m quitting photography…yet.


24 Replies to “Popsicle #46: The letters of Sergio Larrain”

  1. If you were my kid, I’d make you finish them. What am I supposed to do with the 52 frames now?

    When Vince from ShamWow said he would send me the four full-size ShamWows plus the small ones for the kitchen and bath that is exactly what he did. Get back in the game popsicle man.

  2. If you leave part of the popsicle on the stick, the melt will run down all over your fingers creating a sticky mess.

    Better for all involved to finish.

    I have not yet seen the Larrain book. I’ve tried to locate it through various avenues but without success and now I hear it is nearly out of print. Another great resource which many people will never see. Bummer.

  3. Robert Frank is not on Twitter,Facebook,Tumblr,Vimeo,Wordpress…his occasional book is good enough, a postcard to his friends from Mabou, he engages the world without being eaten up by it. I think that we all need more silence, more solitude, I know that I do.

  4. Very intriguing post! I’m sure you’re aware of the story of Cartier-Bresson raiding the Magnum archives in the 70s in an effort to destroy his old negatives, claiming that they were “too perfect” and that they lacked ambiguity. I read this story in “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” and while it seems like the stuff of myth to me, I find it to be none the less compelling as an idea. I also remember reading about his later fondness for a photo he took of refugees exercising in India, as it has a certain ambiguous quality that stands out in his body of work.


  5. these letters from larrain to agnes has a medicinal quality to it, at least for me…i am confronted with the same words at this point – inner life, puzzlement, isolation, etc.. thank you alec. from a distant land.

  6. HCB could give up photography in 1966 because he had private money and I think he was bored.

    Larrain struggled to find a way to make his photography pay, but he was not psychologically equipped to deal with the commercial world. Some people just aren’t. The compromise required, dealing with picture editors, art directors and writers to produce magazine articles I don’t think was a possibility for him. Also, I believe he had health issues. So for him, giving up photography was maybe not purely out of choice.

    I disagree with Alec about one thing. Larrain’s work should certainly be spoken of in the same breath as HCB and Frank. Larrain burnt brilliant bright, for a short while, while they went on producing for decades, but, for example, I challenge anyone to compare Larrain’s work in London with Frank’s and tell me it is in anyway inferior and I know which I prefer.

    The man was an extraordinary image maker. He had real edge with energy and excitement in his work at a time when so much documentary photography was straight and functional.

  7. This is not about who do I think it´s a better photographer, It´s just an opinion, and that comes and goes. and It´s an honest one which is hard to find.
    Sergio Larrain came from a wealthy family from Chile, so probably he had some private money too, but that´s not the issue.
    The issue is about why do you quit and in this case is about quitting something you love to do and you are good in what you are doing and successful doing it. And that´s not for everyone.
    At the end of the 90´s I had the opportunity to spend a whole afternoon with Sergio Larrain talking in a friend´s house. Around those years, he was printing books that made by himself in relation to what he believed was right for him to do, which was the health of the planet, meditation and other stuff to promote an education into become a better human being. I truly believe that he was a very spiritual person. And I think he was doing what he thought was right for him.
    This question about quitting photography, is not a simple one, because it is not about what to do but I think it is about who I am and what am I doing, related to you as a human being and an artist or is this making sense at all.
    An honest and brutal question???
    Thanks for the post

  8. In my experience, a commitment to oneself left unfulfilled always returns to haunt. I would encourage you to persevere (both for selfish as well as altruistic reasons:) These posts of yours bring much learning to us all and will be deeply missed. Thank you for your willingness to share your knowledge and perspective with us all. And PLEASE, do not even think about giving up photography.

  9. This is the first post of yours I read, and it was enough to make me subscibe. I hope it’s not the last, otherwise it will be like reading a history book, you can only read about the past…..

  10. alec, personally, I see photography as a language to tell stories, in a way that every story will always be bigger than you, you will always be learning and wondering which story will be the next one and inside of you there will always be this patch, this journey through this language.
    I see someone like Godard, with his latest movie called ‘Farewell to Language’. He is a huge reference to anyone interest in telling stories, seeing his movies from Nouvelle Vague to now only shows that to tell a story is to keep moving, to try, to experiment instead of being stagnant and being sufocated by your own work and your voice. His ‘Adios’ to cinema, to language for me looks completely honest and sincere, without any vanity.
    You have to separate what you want, what you search for..seeing the work of Larrain I thought of a great photographer, not a person interested in telling stories the way you do, at least for me, this is what makes your work so unique nowadays, it’s completely different the way you deal and ‘see’ photography, is something so new, so daring, so ‘detached’ in a way that this ‘author thing’ is being left behind in the stories you are telling.

    this might sound naive, but this is what I believe and have felt since I first saw your work.


  11. I completely identify with this quote, “Grace comes when you are delivered from conventions, obligations, convenience, competition, and you are free,”
    I have been walking backwards for the past three years and this article is like a vindication. I feel peaceful in my decision.

  12. I’ve loved the popsicles and am grateful for the 46 you delivered.

    As much as everyone needs a rest to reignite the spark in the short term, equally one needs to work themselves out of a long term rut and I feel Larrain lost his way.

    I personally feel that Cartier Bresson was at a level with his photography that he was bored with it. Part of the joy is the journey of learning and the belief that you will deliver new and interesting work but when you master something or go as far as you can you lose that and it’s why I believe he went back to painting.

    Happy New Year and keep up the good work

  13. I have great sympathy for what Larrain writes. His tone.

    Its soemthing which has hunted artists, commercial or not, since the beginning of modernism. Maybe longer. Anyway I think most working (or not working) photographer can relate to this. In a way its a wonder that not much much more people quit.

    But isnt this all to romantic, nostalgic? The pain of the artist. Even if we all feel it.
    I know I do, my girl-friend and my therapist know it. DOn’t we have to focus on other things. Less personal. Less cliche´ . Shouldn’t we focus on the possibilites and outlets this new world of communication and media offers (or throws at) us. Commercial, Non-commercial, Digital, galleries, prices, fairs, magazines, advertising, etc.

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