iN-STore Book Review #2 - Sergio Larrain – London 1958-59.

13th January, 2011

Like most serious minded thoroughfare trundlers -
I do so love a good monograph.
Sadly however my perilous fiscal foreshortedness forces me to fondle such visually lush trinkets on a purely temporary basis, and always from well within the three walls and big glass window of some austere, clinically air conditioned inner city bookshop… under the watchful gaze of CCTV and his ever vigilant, knuckle cracking soldiers on foot … Welcome to the Nowhere Man’s ongoing series of badgered and quite a bit harassed Book Reviews… Book Reviews done in store in which the period of time estimated between first choosing a book off the shelves, and whence my notepad and biro are ultimately kicked violently from my person is on average … a hard boiled  90 seconds. This week I had a rushed look at … "London 1958-59" by Sergio Larrain
London - Sergio Larrain

Now before I begin this short course review I must fess up to the fact that Sergio Larrain has been a personal favourite of mine, ever since I first laid eyes on his mesmeric image, “Valparaiso, Chile, 1957” back in the heady days of sometime last century. And so you see, when I spotted this little book shadowed, dwarfed and generally hidden between pylons of hard covered coffee table pap, down there on the bottom shelf of an unnamed and yet nicely air conditioned Sydney bookstore – I just couldn’t resist. And yet a further admission must shamefacedly be unfurled, an owning up that does make somewhat of a mockery of this segments main premise …ie. that I review a book cold, in a book store from just a cursory glance.

Valparaiso, Chile. 1957 - Sergio Larrain

For in this instance I must admit that I have a copy of this publication at home in the Woy Woy shack having picked it up in 2006 for just a few dollars from a shaggy simpleton dealing monographs in the back bar of the Great Southern Hotel down near China Town. He needed his bus fare home and I was desperate to score – orky orky heat the spoon n grip me hard around the bicep for hell, what a rush … I drooled and nodded big time. For this is a slim, stylish volume chockers full of blur, grain and just this absolutely magical feel. It was first published in 1998 by Dewi Lewis, with some sources claiming the work to have been shot during the winter of 1958, whilst others offer 1959 – either way, you get the gist of the era we’re looking at … of course London is in the northern hemisphere, so yeah, winter goes through Christmas … guess he started in late 58 and finished in 59 … hence the title… OK, you can come back now, Nowhere Man has caught up.

London - Sergio Larrain
Sergio Larrain was a Chilean, and probably still is. He received a British Council Grant; spending 8 months shooting the English capital before 1959 heralded an invitation to join the Magnum Photo Agency by none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson. And interestingly British master David Hurn talks of first meeting Larrain in
Trafalgar Square
during this period after the South American wandered over unannounced to say ‘hi’. A young Hurn had never heard of the friendly stranger, adding, “Sergio had this theory that he could tell good photographers by watching them work”, and it was Larrain who was responsible for first suggesting David Hurn to Magnum.

In his introduction to the book, the urban landscaper Mike Seaborne alludes to Larrain’s capturing of London during the transition from old to new, before offering, “It is not only the subject matter of Larrain’s photographs which make them so compelling, but also their candid nature and their strong sense of what an earlier documentary photographer of London, Bill Brandt, once referred to as ‘atmosphere’”.  And yes, much as with Robert Frank’s London pictures of 1951-53: top hats and tails weave in and out of the mist, the embryonic zest and vibrancy of an approaching Carnaby Street swinging subtly into the books latter pages by way of clairvoyantly tipping us all to an impending future.

Adding further to the mystique of the work comes the man’s subsequent life story.  For Sergio Larrain walked away from it all during the 1970s, off to study Zen Buddhism, living as somewhat of a recluse, in a Chilean village high up in the Andes Mountains. His incongruous ability to fly under the radar during a brilliant two decades of image making, perfectly illustrated by his staggering omission from the 1983 publication, "Macmillan Biographical Encyclopaedia of Photographic Artists and Innovators”, a meaty tome that includes over 7000 photographers from right across the mediums history...and yet no Sergio Larrain. Not so surprising however is his ‘no-show’ in amongst the pages of Viv Farnsworth’s, “A to Z of Rugby League Legends”, for whilst possessing a neat shimmy and left foot step with the ball in hand, the diminutive Larrain is said to have been an absolute revolving door in defence.       

London - Sergio Larrain

A further interesting tit bit for photo aficionados is that one of the two editors of  London 1958-59 is the brilliant English and Magnum snapper Martin Parr.

Needless to say, I absolutely adore this moody meander and must concede to being all a gush as I tap furtively upon slightly moistened keys …Photographers like Sergio Larrain are rarer than poise at a Kingswood fat farm (that’s with or without sauce). They exist on an all together higher plain (that’s with or without clothing), and I for one bow to the man’s tremendously poetic contribution. 


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