ERIC KIM

7 Lessons Sergio Larrain Has Taught Me About Street Photography

CHILE. 1963. Valparaiso / © Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Sergio Larrain is a figure in photographic history who isn’t well-known, and is a bit of a mystery. He barely shot for more than a decade, and then decided to pursue a more “mystical” path in life— focusing on yoga, meditation, and secluded himself from society.

What inspires me the most about Sergio’s photos is his sense of grace and poetry in his images.

I first discovered Sergio Larrain’s work from my buddy Yves Vernin; he had a beautiful retrospective book on him— full of poetic images and also some of Sergio’s personal letters.

I haven’t written a “Learn From the Masters” article in a while— but while riding the bus today, I suddenly had the urge to do some more research on him, and to (hopefully) make his work a little bit known.

Sergio’s history

According to Sergio, he first studied forestry at UC Berkeley (at the age of 17). His first hope was to live in the south of Chile, in the most beautiful regions.

While he was in Berkeley, he worked part-time jobs (washing dishes), and finally bought his first Leica and according to him:

“I saved my first money…and bought my first Leica, not because I wanted to do photos, but because it was the most beautiful object that one could buy (also a typewriter)… for the first time in my life I had money to buy what I wanted.” – Sergio Larrain, in a letter to Agnes Sire, who was the desk editor of Magnum (Paris) for 20 years.

When he went to Ann Arbor, Michigan (at age 19) he was “confused” and “…decided to search for truth” like a vagabond. While he was , he was lent a photographic lab, and on weekends he would enlarge, develop, and learn the craft of photography.

From there, he traveled with his family to the East and Europe, and took photos for a year. In Italy, he discovered the “visual arts” and discovered “another dimension in photography.” His biggest inspiration was in Florence, from a photographer named Cavalli.

When he went back to Chile, he lived in a peasant’s home (which he rented for a year at age 21) in order to be alone and “…find myself.”

During that period, he had his lab in Valparaiso, made photos, and he described that, “Miracles started to happen, and my photography became magic.”

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

As time started to continue, he started to feel more dissatisfied with society, and struggled in terms of trying to find a way to make a living with photography.

So one day in desperation, he sent a collection of his black-and-white photos to the New York Museum of Modern Art, and Edward Steichen offered to buy 2 of the photos for the museum collection (Sergio describes this as, “Like a visit from the Virgin Mary).

This led Sergio to start doing exhibitions, and eventually he was accepted into Magnum (when Henri Cartier-Bresson saw his photos of street kids, and suggested that he work for Magnum). He spent 2 years in Paris, worked for intentional publications, and built up his self-esteem.

However around age 28, he got married, felt trapped, and wanted to live alone. This lead him to move to the country, and retired to his “…island of peace.”

For the rest of his life, he focused on his black-and-white photography, painting (which he said that kept his “eye as a photographer”), and writing. He focused on Yoga, eastern “mysticism”, and sent loving letters to some of his friends at Magnum.

Sergio Larrain passed away on February, 2012, at age 80.

1. Remove the veil of illusion from reality

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

“Photography is a walk alone in the universe…The conventional world veils your vision, for photography you have to find a way to remove the veil.” – Sergio Larrain

I love this deep and philosophical view from Sergio Larrain. I find for me as well, photography is a tool to gain a deeper understanding of reality. Not only that, but photography helps me better notice things in the world, rather than just being another distracted smartphone user (constantly plugged in, with headphones and all).

I also find one of the best ways to think and meditate is through “walking meditation” — when you unplug your headphones, and just enjoy a walk around a city or a neighborhood. This is when I start to get my best ideas, and also have a very (rare) opportunity to be alone.

I also feel that photography is all about self-expression and self-discovery. The more I make photos, the more I learn about my own personality.

For example, I discovered that I was interested in “street photography” because I loved society, people, and interacting with others. And more specifically— I found out that “street portraits” was my favorite genre of photography; because I am an extrovert at heart.

Takeaway point:

So for you, how can you use a camera as a tool to gain a deeper understanding of your world and your own reality? Does photography help you notice things in your daily life more? When you’re riding the subway, are you distracted by your smartphone, or do you like to “Zen” out, observe others, and think about life?

2. Free yourself from conventions

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

“A good image is created by a state of grace. Grace expresses itself when it has been freed from conventions, free like a child in his early discovery of the reality. The game is then to organize the rectangle.” – Sergio Larrain

In photography, one of the ways to stay fresh is to embrace “Beginner’s mind.”

Do you remember when you first picked up a camera? Do you remember how excited you were? Do you remember how everything was so interesting to photograph?

But as time goes on and we gain expertise in a field, our vision becomes less pure, less curious, and less insightful. We let our “expert mind” cloud our vision, and we become suckered into conventions. We learn the “rules” of photography, and therefore our creative abilities become diminished.

Takeaway point:

So let’s take a note from Sergio Larrain and “free ourself from conventions.”

Let photography be a personal journey to you. You don’t need to listen to anything people tell you about photography. No rules exist. Only listen to your own inner-voice.

3. Start your own adventure

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

“The game [of photography] is to let go, to let the adventure begin. Like a sailboat dropping sails.” – Sergio Larrain

Photography should excite you. Every time you go out and hit the streets, it is an opportunity for you to explore reality, meet new people, and make images that excite you.

Often a lot of people plan their lives in the future— how they will “one day” travel the world and explore. But unfortunately, time creeps up quickly, and most people never have the chance to fulfill their dreams and travel and see the world.

In photography we often make plans for the future as well. We make plans of all the places we will travel to, we make plans of certain photography projects we want to pursue.

However the hardest thing in photography is to just start— and just to take photographs. We let self-doubt creep in, we feel that our camera gear isn’t good enough, and we are afraid to take photos of strangers without permission (or with permission).

But even the most experienced sailors know that every time they drop the sails, the sea is uncertain. They don’t know if they will go into a storm, and what perils lie in front of them. A great sailor can’t control the water, waves, or sea— but they can steer their ship to the best of their extent. And they know a general direction they want to head— but the path is always uncertain.

Takeaway point:

Instead of dropping your sails, turn on your camera. Turn on the camera, look around yourself, and make photography an exciting opportunity.

You don’t need to travel to make interesting photographs. It is all about exploring your everyday life and making your ordinary life interesting and exciting.

Regardless if you live in a suburb or a boring city— there are always interesting things for you to photograph.

Don’t think too much, just go out and make photos.

4. Don’t force things / follow your own taste

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

“Don’t ever force things, otherwise the image would lose its poetry. Follow your own taste and nothing else. You are life and life is what you choose. What you do not like, don’t look at it, it’s no good. You’re the only criterion, but still look at everyone else.” – Sergio Larrain

I see it everywhere— that us photographers don’t feel “inspired” and we pick up these 365-take-a-photo-everyday project. Or we think that buying a new camera will “re-inspire” us to make photographs.

Trust me, I find it hard to stay “inspired” and to make photos. But the irony is the more I try to force myself to take photos, the less inspired I feel.

I think my favorite photos are when I’m not stressed, and not being forced to make photos. Poetry shouldn’t be forced— or else it won’t be from the soul, and it won’t be as authentic.

Takeaway point

The point of photography is to enhance your everyday life. To be a great photographer isn’t the point of life— the point is to enjoy your life.

So if photography is adding stress to your life, why are you doing it?

Photography should be a joyful and enjoyable experience. And you don’t need to always be making photos.

If you enjoy reading books, reading poetry, or writing— know that photography is just another tool to enjoy life.

And ultimately if you enjoy the photos you make, why do you care what anybody else thinks?

5. On trying to fit to the commercial world

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

One of the things that Sergio Larrain struggled with is how to make a “living” from photography. Not only that, but he struggled in terms of figuring out whether he wanted to do commercial work.

It is still an issue that many of us face today: should we quit our jobs and pursue photography full-time? And if we decide to do photography full-time, should we only take photos we love? Or should we take the more commercial route and shoot weddings and do commercial portrait shoots?

In a letter addressed to Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1960, Sergio Larrain writes a letter with his doubts (a year after he 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

Sergio

Three years later, Serio Larrain wrote Henri Cartier-Bresson another letter, in which he shares that the only photography he loves doing is the non-commercial, and in a style he loves:

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.”

Takeaway point:

If you have a full-time day job; consider it a blessing. Why? It means the photography you do on the side is your passion. If you aren’t dependent on photography to make a living, you don’t need to make photos you don’t want to make.

I know a lot of friends who are full-time wedding or commercial photographers who are so burnt out from their commercial work, that they have no energy or passion left for their personal projects.

Consider the job of a 9-5 worker— you have time before work, during your lunch break, and after work to make photos you are passionate about. And you can take photos on the weekends— and you don’t need to waste any time to do commercial work you don’t care about.

Counter-point:

But then again on the other hand, as a commercial or wedding photographer— you can still stay true to your values.

I know some commercial photographers who are a lot more stubborn and only shoot their commercial or wedding work the way they want to shoot. And of course this costs them some jobs, but ultimately they feel more authentic to themselves. And some of the most successful photographers (Dan Winters comes to mind) work in this manner. They only deliver photos they are proud of. They don’t seek to please their customer— they seek to make photos that please them, and only finds customers that will appreciate their work.

One of the big philosophical debates people have is: should I make commercial work that pleases my clients, or please myself? And not only that, but there is the ever-going nagging question: “Is the customer always right?”

Steve Jobs was a creative genius who was a stubborn asshole. He had a very strong singular vision for technological devices— and he made others adapt to his vision (rather than adapting to the world). And that worked for him.

I think it works both ways: you can either be stubborn and make the world adapt to you, or you can adapt to the world. It comes down to what is your personal style.

Nobody has the answers; just find out what works for you. Do what feels authentic to you, and disregard what others tell you.

6. Isolate yourself creatively

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

How does an individual stay creative, and not become “corrupted” by the outside world?

These are some questions that puzzled Sergio Larrain. He believed that many creatives had to isolate themselves, and stay true to themselves:

“…People that do creative work, have to isolate themselves, they are all hermits, one way or another…Picasso would live in a world of happiness, with his children and women as you have seen…far from ugliness, sadness…”

He also believed that at times, creativity was born from periods when society was opened to novelty and new things:

“There are periods when the whole of society opens to novelty, as did happen in the Renaissance, in Italy, and maybe, some period of harmony, where society works with grace and inspiration, like in classic Greece.”

Sergio brings up a case of Bruce Davidson; who he believes lost a bit of his creative magic after he started to do commercial work:

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

Sergio also believed that the greatest creative geniuses were the ones who were able to continue to create their craft, to benefit society:

“Verlaine used to live drunkard, in hotels, in misery, but kept being a poet…has given us poetry, like a permanent sunshine…well trained pianists, keep quality all of their lives, with complete dedication, and living in the creations of composers, that preserve them from falling…”

Sergio concludes by believing that artists who stayed happy and pure were the ones to escape conventions that led others astray:

It is not easy to keep life alive, not degrade it to convinces, to conventions, to adaption […] The art is to live in happiness, with love, with truth, with purity, not swallowed by mechanization…Henri did preserve that for many years, probably because he was exploring, was the discoverer of the 35mm cameras, and was well formed visually (in the tradition of French painters). He gave so much…he did open photography for everyone..Weston did the same with his big format, and stable subjects…those are moments of coincidence, in society, when a new form appears, and is manifested through someone.”

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

Also, it means to believe in miracles and magic in photography— and how we have to be open to inspiration (the muse), and not try to control the artistic process:

“You see, that 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… 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 whale, 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 be kept going, always… that is why to make a good use of the hunt is wisdom… To keep this miracle of life, in happiness, in tenderness, forming children, preserving elders, listening to olders… the eternal moment, which is reality.”

Takeaway point:

I do believe that being an artist is finding a balance— to learn from your contemporaries, peers, and colleagues, but staying true to your own vision.

The way I’ve been able to balance the two is only trusting the opinion of my close friends and photographers I respect. If I respect the work of a certain artist or photographer, I respect his/her opinion a lot more than a random person on the internet.

Furthermore, I do believe that is important to creatively isolate yourself for certain periods. If you disconnect from social media and take a hiatus from uploading photos online, I think you better discover your true voice. Sometimes quietness and stillness are required for you to not be distracted by the work others are doing, and to focus on your own personal work.

7. Avoid fame

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

“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.” – Sergio Larrain

There is a Roman saying: “The higher we’re placed, the more humbly we should walk.”

You see it happen all the time— with actors, singers, rappers, and artists; the more famous they become, the bigger their ego becomes, and in trying to stay famous, they ruin themselves. They call this the “fame monster” — look at all the famous and rich people who have gone bankrupt, who have become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and have ruined their lives.

The antidote is to always stay humble— and to know the higher you climb, the more humble you need to become.

I’ve faced this myself— the more famous I’ve become, I’ve let my head and ego swell. The more ego-centric I become, the less receptive I am to constructive criticism, and the more my photography stagnates.

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

However one of the things I’ve learned from my mom is to always stay humble, and not to forget where I’ve come from.

So honestly nowadays I try to treat myself just like another blogger, another photographer who is trying to make photos to enjoy himself, and to enjoy life.

Honestly— the more “internet famous” you become, the more stressful it can become. You feel like you need (even more) followers, likes, and “influence.” You start to compare yourself to other (more famous) photographers, and you become even more dissatisfied than when you were just an amateur taking photos for fun.

Never lose your child-like enthusiasm for photography. Use social media as a tool to connect yourself with other like-minded individuals; don’t let it ruin your life.

Thank you Sergio

© Sergio Larrain / Magnum Photos

I think what I ultimately love about Sergio Larrain is how contemplative and meditative he was with his photography and life. He combined his interests in Eastern philosophy to guide his artistic life.

At the height of his fame, he retired to a small humble cabin, and pursued a path genuine to himself. When he felt like he started to “sell out”, he took a break, took a step back, and re-assessed what was most important to him in life (meditation, yoga, painting, and photography for himself).

Photography is a tool for self-examination, and a tool to understand the world around yourself. The more I think about it, photography helps me to philosophize more about life.

As I’m getting more experienced in photography— I am less interested in how to make better photos. I am more interested in how to create more meaning and purpose in my photography. And these are personal questions we ask ourselves once we get off the “social media treadmill” of likes/followers.

So thank you Sergio for all of your beautiful letters, and encouraging us photographers to contemplate why we make photos. You demonstrated through the way you lived your life that you can be authentic, happy, and live a meaningful and creative life. Rest in peace.

Always,
Eric

Sergio Larrain Retrospective Book

To learn more about Sergio’s work and appreciate his beautiful black and white photos, I recommend you pick up his retrospective book: “Sergio Larrain.”

Learn From the Masters of Street Photography

Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

“He without a past has no future.”

If you want to become a great street photographer, don’t neglect studying from the masters of street photography.

If you want a distilled version, read my free ebook:  “100 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography.”

The Masters: