Sergio Larrain’s Letter to His Nephew (1982)

by Jeremy Bassetti
Sergio Larrain Letter to His Nephew Sebastian Donoso 1982

It was a cold, December day when I strolled into a bookstore in France and ran my fingers along the spines of the books in the photography section. My finger stopped on the steel-grey spine of Sergio Larrain’s book Londres, 1959, which I slid off the shelf and thumbed through. As I looked at his enigmatic, contrasty photographs of London — shot on black-and-white film, of course — a wave of inspiration overcame me. I found his photographs to be unlike most of the photographs I’ve seen recently. They were works of art.

I didn’t buy the book. I had no room on my carry-on, after all. But I wrote down his name in my journal and Googled him later that day. I came upon a letter he wrote to his nephew in 1982 and, after reading it, a second wave hit me. Feeling inspired over the next few days, I hit the streets of Bordeaux.

In the early 1980s, Larrain received a letter from his nephew, Sebastián Donoso, asking for advice on becoming a photographer. Larrain’s response has become a special document in the history of photography, one that first offers practical tips before getting to the more important and interesting topics of how to see and how to live. The letter sparkles with mystical wonder.

In the letter we learn that, for Larrain, photography is not just about technique. Sure, there is a technical element to photography; photographers need to know how to use their tools to get good, consistent results. But photography is more than that. It is, in Larrain’s words, “poetry.”

Having a decent camera is important, but perhaps it is not as important as the talking heads on YouTube will have us think. What is more important is experiencing, looking, and getting lost. Larrain challenges us to find our own, unique voice by traveling and by rejecting what he calls the “conventional world.” Here, we might today think of the “visual sameness” of photographs on platforms like Instagram, the “Déjà Vu Vibes” documented on accounts like Insta Repeat. What was #ExploreToCreate has become #ExploreToRecreate.

For Larrain, as is the case for any other human, experience must come before expression. But to say something different, one must see and experience differently. And through wandering and rejecting convention, photography becomes a mystical journey into discovering the self and the wider world. In the words of Larrain, photography is “a solitary walk in the universe.”

He also compares photography to fishing, as both requires a bit of patience, luck, and floating around.

Below I’ve published an English translation of Larrain’s letter to his nephew next to the original letter in Spanish. In my translation, I’ve tried to retain the feel of the original Spanish text, with run-on sentences, comma splices, and all. My translation here is imperfect. But of all the English translations found online, it captures the fragmentary and loose nature of Larrain’s original best. Most of the others idealize and polish up his letter in a way that is inaccurate.1


English

Wednesday. The most important thing is to have a camera that you like, one that you like the most, because it’s about feeling comfortable with the (camera) body, with what you have in your hands. And equipment is important for anyone with a profession, and it should at least have only what is necessary and nothing more. Secondly, get an enlarger, the best and simplest you can find (in 35 mm., the smallest manufactured by LEITZ is the best, it will last your whole life).

The game is to go on an adventure, like a sailboat, let go of the sails. Go to Valparaiso or Chiloé, be in the street all day, wander and wander through unknown places, and sit under a tree when you’re tired, buy a banana or some bread and just get on a train, go wherever you like, and look, draw also, and look. Leave the world you know behind and and step into one nobody else has seen, LET YOURSELF BE CARRIED AWAY, go here and there, wherever you like. Slowly, you’ll start finding things and images will come to you; think of them as apparitions.

Later, when you return home, develop, print and start looking at what you fished, all of the fish, and tape postcard-sized prints to a wall and look at them. Then start playing around with the L, to find crops, to frame, and learn about composition and geometry. Enlarge what you cropped and leave it on the wall. By looking, you will learn how to see. When you are certain that a photograph is bad, throw it away immediately. Tape the best ones a little higher on the wall, and keep only the good ones and nothing more (keeping the mediocre keeps you stuck in mediocrity). Only keep the good ones at the top, throw away everything else, because the psyche carries everything it absorbs.

Then do some exercise, use your time to do other things, and don’t worry anymore. Start looking at the work of other photographers and find the good in whatever you encounter: books, magazines, etc. and keep the best ones, and cut them out if you can, keep the good things and tape them to the wall next to yours, and if you can’t cut them out, open the book or magazine at the good pages and leave it open. Leave it there for weeks, months, while it nourishes you. It takes a long time to see, but little by little the secret is delivered to you and you see what is good and the depth of everything.

Go on with your life calmly, draw a bit, take a walk and never force yourself to take photographs because this kills the poetry, the life it has gets sick, it is like forcing love or friendship… you can’t do it. When you are born again, you can take a new journey: in Puerto Aguirre, you can go on horseback down the Baker to the glaciers in Aysén; Valparaiso is always marvelous, it’s getting lost in the magic, getting lost for days up and down its slopes and streets and sleeping in a sleeping bag somewhere at night, and so submerged in reality, like a swimmer in the water, that nothing distracts you, nothing conventional.

Let your feet carry you along slowly, as if you were cured by the pleasure of looking, humming, and what you will begin to appreciate you will start photographing more carefully, and you will have learned about composition and framing, which you will now do with the camera, and like that you continue filling your cart with fish, and you will return home. Learn about focus, aperture, foreground, saturation, shutter speed, etc. Learn how to play with your camera and its possibilities, and go collecting poetry (yours and that of others), keep everything good you find, even the work of others. Make a collection of good things, a little museum in a folder.

Continue in the way you like it and nothing more. Don’t believe in anything but your taste, you are life and it’s life that chooses. Don’t look at what you don’t like, there’s no reason to. You are the only criterion, but also consider everything else. Keep learning, when you have really good photos, enlarge them, make a small exhibition or a book, have it bound. And with that you establish a foundation, showing your photos you will find what they are, you will understand only when you will see them in front of others. To make an exhibition is to give something, like giving food, it’s good that others are shown something done with care and pleasure. It’s not showing off, it’s good for you, it’s good for everybody and it’s good for you because it keeps you in check.

Well, that’s enough to start. It’s a lot of vagabonding, sitting down under a tree somewhere. It’s a solitary walk through the universe. You will start seeing again, the conventional world covers your eyes, it’s a matter of uncovering them when you take pictures.

Spanish

Miércoles. Lo primero de todo es tener una máquina que a uno le guste, la que más le guste a uno, porque se trata de estar contento con el cuerpo, con lo que uno tiene en las manos y el instrumento es clave para el que hace un oficio, y que sea el mínimo, lo indispensable y nada más. Segundo, tener una ampliadora a su gusto, la más rica y simple posible (en 35 mm. la más chica que fabrica LEITZ es la mejor, te dura para toda la vida).

El juego es partir a la aventura, como un velero, soltar velas. Ir a Valparaiso, o a Chiloé, por las calles todo el día, vagar y vagar por partes desconocidas, y sentarse cuando uno está cansado bajo un árbol, comprar un plátano o unos panes y así tomar un tren, ir a una parte que a uno le tinque, y mirar, dibujar también, y mirar. Salirse del mundo conocido, entrar en lo que nunca has visto, DEJARSE LLEVAR por el gusto, mucho ir de una parte a otra, por donde te vaya tincando. De a poco vas encontrando cosas y te van viniendo imágenes, como apariciones las tomas.

Luego que has vuelto a la casa, revelas, copias y empiezas a mirar lo que has pescado, todos los peces, y los pones con su scotch al muro, los copias en hojitas tamaño postal y los miras. Después empiezas a jugar con las L, a buscar cortes, a encuadrar, y vas aprendiendo composición, geometría. Van encuadrando perfecto con las L y amplias lo que has encuadrado y lo dejas en la pared. Así vas mirando, para ir viendo. Cuando se te hace seguro que una foto es mala, al canasto al tiro. La mejor las subes un poco más alto en la pared, al final guardas las buenas y nada más (guardar lo mediocre te estanca en lo mediocre). En el tope nada más lo que se guarda, todo lo demás se bota, porque uno carga en la psiquis todo lo que retiene.

Luego haces gimnasia, te entretienes en otras cosas y no te preocupas más. Empiezas a mirar el trabajo de otros fotógrafos y a buscar lo bueno en todo lo que encuentres: libros, revistas, etc. y sacas lo mejor, y si puedes recortar, sacas lo bueno y lo vas pegando en la pared al lado de lo tuyo, y si no puedes recortar, abres el libro o las revistas en las páginas de las cosas buenas y lo dejas abierto en exposición. Luego lo dejas semanas, meses, mientras te dé, uno se demora mucho en ver, pero poco a poco se te va entregando el secreto y vas viendo lo que es bueno y la profundidad de cada cosa.

Sigues viviendo tranquilo, dibujas un poco, sales a pasear y nunca fuerces la salida a tomar fotos, por que se pierde la poesía, la vida que ello tiene se enferma, es como forzar el amor o la amistad, no se puede. Cuando te vuelva a nacer, puede partir en otro viaje, otro vagabundeo: a Puerto Aguirre, puedes bajar el Baker a caballo hasta los ventisqueros desde Aysén; Valparaiso siempre es una maravilla, es perderse en la magia, perderse unos días dándose vueltas por los cerros y calles y durmiendo en el saco de dormir en algún lado en la noche, y muy metido en la realidad, como nadando bajo el agua, que nada te distrae, nada convencional.

Te dejas llevar por las alpargatas lentito, como si estuvieras curado por el gusto de mirar, canturreando, y lo que vaya apareciendo lo vas fotografiando ya con más cuidado, algo has aprendido a componer y recortar, ya lo haces con la máquina, y así se sigue, se llena de peces la carreta y vuelves a casa. Aprendes foco, diafragma, primer plano, saturación, velocidad, etc. aprendes a jugar con la máquina y sus posibilidades, y vas juntando poesía (lo tuyo y lo de otros), toma todo lo bueno que encuentres, bueno de los otros. Hazte una colección de cosas óptimas, un museito en una carpeta.

Sigue lo que es tu gusto y nada más. No le creas más que a tu gusto, tu eres la vida y la vida es la que se escoge. Lo que no te guste a ti, no lo veas, no sirve. Tu eres el único criterio, pero ve de todos los demás. Vas aprendiendo, cuando tengas una foto realmente buena, las amplias, haces una pequeña exposición o un librito, lo mandas a empastar y con eso vas estableciendo un piso, al mostrarla te ubicas de lo que son, según lo veas frente a los demás, ahí lo sientes. Hacer una exposición es dar algo, como dar de comer, es bueno para los demás que se les muestre algo hecho con trabajo y gusto. No es lucirse uno, hace bien, es sano para todos y a ti te hace bien porque te va chequeando.

Bueno, con esto tienes para comenzar. Es mucho vagabundeo, estar sentado debajo de un árbol en cualquier parte. Es un andar solo por el universo. Uno nuevamente empieza a mirar, el mundo convencional te pone un biombo, hay que salir de él durante el período de fotografía.

Notes:
  1. I’m open to improvements, so do get in touch if you have any.[]

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