Sergio Larrain wrote this letter in 1982, to his nephew Sebastián Donoso, who had previously asked Larrain where to begin in becoming a photographer. The letter was written a decade after Larrain quit photography and retreated to the Chilean countryside to dedicate himself to Yoga and Meditation until his death.
The original version, included in the book Sergio Larrain, Vagabond Photographer is full of erasure marks and corrections, demonstrating the effort Larrain put into making his nephew understand with simplicity, the kind of career path he was about to take.
The most important thing is to have a camera that you like, the one you like best. It has to feel right, its body, and you have to be happy with what you are holding in your hands. The tool is crucial for anyone with a trade. And it should be simple, exactly what you need, no more and no less (a good body, the Pentax with a macro 1:1 lens; Panchito has one I think so go and have a look). Then you need a 35 mm enlarger that you like, one that is as efficient and simple as possible. Leitz´s smallest model is the best and you’ll have it for life. (Leitz has a branch in Santiago, they can import).
Then you have to go out and seek adventure, like a boat with all sails hoisted; go to Valparaiso or the Chiloé Archipelago, or walk the streets all day; wandering, always wandering around unfamiliar places, and when you´re tired, sit back against a tree, buy a banana or some bread … that´s it, take a train, go somewhere that takes your fancy and have a look, leave the world you know, find your way into places and things you´ve never seen, allow your own desires to guide you, travel from one place to another, go wherever you like … and little by little, you´ll discover things. And pictures will steal up on you, like ghosts; take them.
Later, once you have returned home and developed them, make some prints ands start to look at your haul, all the fish you´ve caught … stick them to the wall with tape, print them in postcard format and look at them … Start playing with the “L” shape, looking for crops, images to frame, and you´ll learn composition and geometry, you can make a perfect frame with an “L” (two pieces of card cut into an L-shape). Enlarge your framed compositions and put them up on the wall.
To live with them. To see them as you pass by.
If you´re sure a photo is no good – throw it away!
Take better ones and stick them a little higher up on the wall, in the end you will have kept only the good ones, and no others. Holding on to the mediocre ones will condemn you to mediocrity. Keep the “hits” only – the really arresting images, throw out the rest because everything you keep will be retained in the unconscious.
Then do some exercise, busy yourself with other things and don´t worry. Start looking at other photographer´s work, searching for quality in everything you came across – books, magazines, etc. Select the best and if you can cut out the good ones and stick them on the wall besides those you have taken. And if you can´t cut them out, open the book or the magazine at the page you like and leave it open, on display.
Allow them to seep in and nourish you for weeks or months on end – you will learn a lot by looking. But little by little they will surrender their secret to you and you will learn what is good, and see the depth in each one.
Continue living quietly, do some drawing.
Go for a walk, and never force yourself to take photos, as the poetry will be lost and the life it contains will be frozen. It´s like forcing love or friendship, it´s impossible.
When you are ready to start again, you can set off on other voyages and wanderings, make your way to Puerto Aguirre, you can go on horseback right down to the glaciers, from Aisén… Valparaiso is always wonderful, getting lost in the magic, taking a few days exploring the hills and lanes and spending the night in a sleeping bag somewhere … finding reality like swimming at the bottom of the sea, with nothing to distract you, where nothing is as expected, you try to take a step in your espadrilles, slowly, as if you have been purified, wanting to see … singing softly.
You will photograph what you find with great care; you have learnt to frame and compose; now do it with the camera … and bit by bit, the bag fills with fish and you go home. (Learn to adjust aperture, change the foreground, saturation, speed, etc. Learn to play with all the possibilities your camera offers).
You will come close to poetry, yours, that of other people, be inspired by what other have done well (MoMA in New York has published a number of books, my father has a few of them in his library), make a collection of excellent images, a small museum, in a folder. Do what you want to do and nothing else, trust only your own taste.
You are life and life is what you choose, don´t consider what you don’t like, don’t use it. Your choice is what matters, but use the work of others as inspiration.
You will make progress.
When you have several really good photos, enlarge them and show them in a small exhibition – or make a little book. Bind them together (look at what I did during my apprenticeship, my father has them in his library). This is how you will establish a basic standard. By showing your work you will get better at picking out the good and the bad by pitting it against others – you´ll feel it.
Putting on an exhibition means giving something, like preparing a meal, it´s good for the others to show them work done with good taste, it´s not self-congratulatory, it´s a good thing, it´s healthy for everyone. And it´s good for you too as you can see how you measure up.
So now you have what you need to start.
You´ll need just to walk around a lot, sitting down under a tree somewhere or other … a solitary stroll in the universe, which suddenly you are really seeing for the first time. The conventional world is a screen, you have to get out from behind it – when you take photographs.
I’lll write more later.
Finding your own truth is the key to everything.”