SHELF : Sergio Larrain by Sergio Larrain April 20 2014, 1 Comment

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Sergio Larrain by Sergio Larrain 
Hardcover, 1st Edition 
Aperture, 2013 
420 Pages

I was lost when I first discovered Sergio Larrain. Living under a bride in the 15th arrondissement and surviving through my false impersonations as a bus boy to collect tips and leftover scraps of food, I had wandered to a city I had dreamed of as a child and as a child those machinations I started to build of myself as a man slowly started to fall away, like the rubbing of stones or a collection of rocks in a tumbler- the rough edges of my youth started to smooth themselves out along numerous and many other roads which led from my journey as a kid in San Ysidro to Paris, arriving via foot from Frankfurt.

It lasted less than a year, but to this day I still think about it constantly, either that time spent living in the airport for those few days, or of Frank the angel janitor who helped guide me to the right road on that walk which seemed never ending and ongoing through what felt like two seasons of winter and snow, nearly dead but still moving, toes black, the strange demon of a man behind me now but in my midst then, his hand clasping an adjacent door frame while watching me sleep, a knife in my hand, and that continuously tenuous meander of a wander that led me to the City of Light.

Immediately upon arriving in Paris, just as when I had landed in Frankfurt, I became overcome with an unnatural fear that eventually turned into a drive to keep moving. Time can too often feel like a glacier with its slow movement and large egress, but during that time my days bled into one another with such a vim and vigor that it was hard to keep track of whether the sky had in it a sunset or sunrise.

One day, after settling into a makeshift home under the Mirabeau, I woke up surrounded by the tapping and chirping of birds all around me. Blue shadows began to attach themselves to every object as the sun slowly started to rise and shone its face just up down the road. I gathered my things and tied them together with a sweater and stuffed the pile behind a tree. From there, I started walking, admittedly stuck in that moment of youth where anything and anyone given the right air and aura can cause one to fall in love. And in that particular particulate of quiet, when the sun had yet to reach the portion of sky that surrounded me, walking down that street with nothing in my pockets but my hands to keep them from the cold, before dawn, along a river vermicular, a small shudder of a name as if spoken through lace or written in silk, all the pastels of a pearl: her face, drawn in the blue light of morning.

A small girl about my same age, she was sweeping up a curb corner, her head covered with a maid’s hat. I saw her from a distance at first and slowly started to edge toward her, a smile being the only thing I had to offer. She turned to me, her profile glinted in the soft dawn: a face replicating almost exactly the famous Vermeer painting of a girl with a pearl earring. We both smiled at each other and just as I was about to get close enough to where my hello to her would have been audible with a whisper, she turned around, listening to a voice calling her inside, and disappeared inside the café doors, where I could hear a man screaming at her in an indecipherable French. Now I wasn’t trying to be some creepy stalker, but how often does one come in contact with someone whose string instantly gets tangled with your own? So I waited a few minutes, hoping she would come out and I would be able to tell her simply that I thought she was beautiful and walk away. Suddenly a window opened. On the second floor, her head poked out, laughing as she saw me waving from below. Shaking a rag outside the building, she said something in French, which I didn’t understand. Communication hopeless, I said you’re beautiful as much as I could without words before the voice of the man became audible again and she disappeared back inside the house.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. I watched the city wake and fall asleep from the left bank of the Seine. It is astounding sometimes how the mere meeting of someone can completely transform your headspace. Every morning I would return to that café but she was never there. I found out later that her and her father had a traveling cleaning service and most likely wouldn’t be back at that location for another week. I waited. When the week came and she wasn’t there I was devastated. Walking along the street, I entered a small bookstore to get my mind off things. It’s funny sometimes how huge something can feel in the moment when in hindsight it is but a minor quibble. Inside the store I was greeted by an old man. He showed me around the shop, pointing out different sections. After the tour, which I took in order to be polite, he asked me when the last time I showered was. Embarrassed, I told him that I couldn’t remember. 
“Well, we have rooms upstairs, a bathroom you can use?” he said. 
Certainly red with embarrassment by now, I thanked him but declined. 
“You a writer?” he pressed on. 
I told him I was practicing. To which he replied that I could stay there as long as I wanted if I was willing to work in the shop, write a short biography about myself (nothing long, he said), and clean up every now and then. “You can also help cut my hair,” he said, “I use a candle.” 
Dumbfounded, I stepped outside with him and sat on a bench while he told me about his shop. I looked up at the awning and its name immediately snapped into recollection from the numerous Henry Miller books I had been reading up to that moment. I immediately told him yes. 
“People don’t last here long,” he softly warned, “but it’s a great place to call home if you don’t have one.” 
For a week I stayed there, working in the shop, cleaning here and there and working on a short biography for him- a part of my rent. Soon however, it grew to be too much structure. For some reason it is hard for me to fit in a place whose walls are permanent. One day, while helping him burn portions of his hair, I told him I would be leaving to which he started laughing. 
“I was surprised you lasted this long!” he chuckled. 
On my last day working in the shop a man came in with a stack of books to donate. They belonged to his wife whom he had recently divorced. 
“She just left them- I want to get rid of the whole stack.” When I asked if he wanted to sell or donate, he said to “just have them, that way she can’t say I sold them. I donated them- to you- for a good cause.” And with that he walked out the store, the bell on the top corner of the door chiming as his steps sounded off further and farther away. I took the books to a nearby desk and started making piles of them to organize between genres for the shop. Mostly art books and catalogues, the last few in the pile were a novel by Borges, a collection of poems by Neruda and a curious volume of photographs titled after a Chilean city called Valparaíso by a photographer named Sergio Larrain.

For the rest of the day all I did was look through the book, obsessively pouring through its images one after the other. The next day I left the shop to go back living under the bridge, taking the book with me, each day waking up to look at it before going on my morning walk through the city.

One day, while walking through a market, I came upon a lone bill of 10 euros on the floor. I looked around to see if anyone had dropped it and, after an admittedly quick perusal, I picked it up and stuffed it into my pocket. A cause for celebration, I went to the same café where I had spotted the Vermeer girl a few weeks ago. Nighttime now, I entered the doors to a rather crowded room. People were chatting and smoking in nearly every seat. I found an empty table under a large mirror near the window and sat down, ordering a dish of chicken and some water, my first paid meal the entire time I was there. As the food arrived an old woman with a Spanish guitar walked in and sat down on a chair near the opposite side of the room and started to play a set of songs by the Chilean singer Violeta Parra. I was entranced. A nameless woman, with no sign or CD for sale, just a guitar and her fingers moving artfully up and down the neck of the instrument while she sang in a continuous key. Time, as it can, started to slow down for me, and all sound started to drop out save for hers. I watched her as she stared at the same corner of ceiling singing. At the end of her set I took out the few euros I had left after my meal was paid and offered them to her as a token of appreciation to which she denied, smiling shyly before putting her guitar on her back and walking away down the avenue, stray leaves falling and flickering around in pools of lamplight nested against a curb.

A day later and I was at the same café, a small refraction of light from the mirror behind me shining onto the stage. I came again for a meal, this time only able to afford a soup. Luckily, I had lined my pockets with plastic bags and while the bartender was busy behind the counter I took whatever remaining pieces of food were left on the emptied tables and put them in my pockets for later, mostly just bread and a few stray pieces of meat. The woman came in again and I sat closer this time. As she started to play I leaned against the edge of the table in front of me where after a few songs I began to zone out- carrying my vision to the empty space of wall behind her, the lyrics from her song blending blissfully with those smaller and larger sounds from outside: cars milling and mulling about, people walking, screaming, running and that soft breath of a sound almost imperceptible unless concentrated on with one’s ears: the wind. My vision occupied the space of that wall for several songs, the paint having numerous runs in it, countless coats having covered its surface. I thought of everyone in my life up until then, everyone I’d ever left, followed, or failed. How far away we were now-

A sudden nudge to my arm interrupted my thought: a man plopped down in the chair next to me. Drunk, he mumbled a few words to himself while holding his head up with his left hand while the other had in it a glass of wine which he moved involuntarily as though he were scanning the surface of the table- his entire upper body bobbing around like a buoy on the surface of the ocean.

The woman finished her set and immediately the man next to me started to clap loudly before slamming his glass down onto the table along with a few coins before wishing everyone a goodbye. I smiled and nodded him away as he walked out the door. Turning around, I noticed the woman packing up and again I offered her a small token of appreciation. She said no and then pointed at the book on my table- Valparaíso. Through her broken English and my broken Spanish I came to understand that she was from Chile, working in a bakery and playing music in a few café’s throughout the week. “Never for money,” she said- “only to be happy.” Before I knew it, our conversation had brought us to a table by the window. The bartender gave her and myself a drink on the house. She took out her bag and showed me pictures from her hometown in Chile, her daughters and grandchildren all in a large group in the background. “I love Paris,” she said, “but miss family very much. I am here 18 years with my boyfriend. We never marry, but we stay together the whole time, in love like children- youth love, me entiendes?” 
I nodded, completely touched by her story. 
“Two years ago, my boyfriend, he- he died,” she started to clasp her hands together, moving the tips of her fingers over her knuckles, “I work in bakery now, me and his sisters- good people.” From there her hands started to wander and tap the surface of the book. 
“This book- like magic, beautiful book.” She would go on to tell me that the man she was with collected books and this was her favorite because it was of Chile. 
“All his books we give away to university after he died,” she leaned in and smiled, “should have kept this one,” she said tapping its surface, smiling still. 
The conversation carried on for a while, switching focus from her to me and then back to her again. I told her of the Vermeer girl I had fallen for to which she laughed, saying not to worry, “many more, many more.” 
Eventually, once the candles started to be blown out at the tables around us, she said she had to go. Smiling simultaneously we both got up and I walked her to the door, grabbing the copy of Valparaíso from the table. We hugged again and she walked away into the waving lamplight, which, diffused through the many branches and trees, seemed to move and chase after her. I looked down at the book in my hands and flipped through it once more before chasing after her myself- calling her name. She turned around and I offered up the book to her. She smiled and refused, waving her hands, “no no no no no.” I relented with a smile and she eventually agreed under the condition that I would come see her play at the café at least once a week. “You give gift to me, I give gift to you.” I nodded and smiled, handing off the book to her with a hug before saying goodbye, her figure dissolving into the background of Rue de la Convention. After a walk, I returned to that small section of mine under the bridge, eating the spare pieces of meat and bread from the bags in my pockets and admiring the night sky.

And I can still see all those stars, burning like smaller and smaller fragments and filaments of flame: a meandering ochre of oranges, reds, yellows and that faintest hue of blue from the morning I saw that mysterious girl who seemed to step out of the Vermeer. As I remember it now, years later and multiple thousands of miles away in a small apartment in Los Angeles, the voice of the singer still whispers to me, the gaze from the Vermeer girl is just as hypnotizing, and all those images from Valparaíso when summoned blink back in a zoetrope of movement, the jump cuts and motion of which I still cherish to this day whenever I’m lost in thought or kept wandering in place. 

*     *     * 

This new monograph of photographer and artist Sergio Larrain from Aperture is as close to perfect a summation for the artist’s work that I can imagine. From the opening facsimile letter of his to an aspiring nephew photographer, to the large and vast collection of both renowned and newly unearthed Larrain images, to the sprinkling of texts, drawings and poems from his hand interspersed throughout the book- it is at once new and old, encompassing within itself as an object the best of what a great Larrain image has, a breath and lightness coupled with a simultaneous depth and deep heart. Elegantly designed by Xavier Barral, the book is large but not uncomfortable to hold, encompassing the artist’s entire oeuvre from the beginning work in his native Chile to his later work with Magnum around the globe in Italy, London, Peru and Bolivia among others. A series of images entitled “simple satori” at the end bookends the collection of work perfectly as a simple breath and step of the artist’s later work created in solitude, a personal sunrise of work that matches in complement the previous bodies shown throughout described by the book’s brilliant editor Agnes Sire as “a cosmogony of stone.” Finally, a superb and insightful contributing essay by Gonzalo Leiva Quijada entitled Lights in the Labyrinth ends the book along with an addendum of transcriptions and translations of the letters that opened the book. Out of all the work, this is where the great discovery for me was- the Sergio Larrain as a writer. The first letter to Sebastián Donoso, a nephew of his interested in photography, is so perfectly poignant it reads almost as if Larrain knew it would be kept for preservation. The insight and wisdom in the letter recalls to mind Rilke’s famous collection of letters to Franz Xaver Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet. Following that is further correspondence with Larrain between photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and editor Agnes Sire, both collections revealing further Larrain’s great gift with prose. In addition to the correspondence collected, there are texts and poems interspersed throughout the book by Larrain, either detailing a specific series of photographs or expounding upon the “simple satori” he so greatly cherished later in life through haiku. Overall, Larrain’s writing is all at once elusive and direct, contradictorily containing a spare quality to it along with great depth. Like all great books and works of art, Sergio Larrain is a photobook that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

Now if only we could be given a follow-up book collecting to the other letters and texts written by Larrain... 

- Jason Jaworski
Los Angeles, CA

Sergio Larrain by Sergio Larrain - Available Here.

Valparaíso by Sergio Larrain - Available Here. 


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