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At Centro Cultural Español, Gilles Larrain stands over a photograph he took in 1983 in Gualdaquivir, Spain, and launches into the first of many memories.
"That's El Cabrero, one of flamenco's greatest singers," he says. The man in the picture is surrounded by a herd of goats and looks like a character from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western.
"He had about 100 goats he called 'his girls,'" Larrain laughs. "He never went on tour for more than two weeks at a time because he thought they would forget him."
Larrain's stunning pictures are on exhibit in "Flamenco: Paisajes del Alma" ("Flamenco: Landscape of Its Soul"), which features nearly 50 images documenting the photographer's sojourn to Seville in 1983.
In another large digital print on canvas, El Cabrero stands in front of a tangle of cacti as he cracks his knuckles. The rugged, unshaven singer squints at the viewer from under the brim of a black fedora. "His love for his goats was bigger than showbiz," Larrain adds. "La Rula, Josefita, Fernanda — he would call out to each of them by name, and they came."
Larrain was born in 1938 in Dalat, Indochina. His Chilean father was a diplomat and painter. His French-Vietnamese mother was a pianist and a painter. Larrain was educated at New York University and at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied architecture and worked in city planning.
While living in Paris during the early Sixties, Larrain would hop on his motorcycle on weekends with a guitar strapped to his back and travel to Seville, Andalusia, and the Jerez region of Spain.
"That's when I fell in love with the gypsies and flamenco," he beams. "Once I was invited to a private party at the house of Domecq, the family known for its brandy. La Chunga was dancing barefoot and moving like a cat, the sweat making her dress cling to her body seductively and driving everyone wild. As a young man, it left an incredible impression," Larrain recollects.
After graduating, he moved to New York and began experimenting with kinetic art and painting, later settling on photography as his life's work.
While gingerly fingering a stack of gelatin silver prints being prepared for display by several white-gloved assistants, Larrain becomes animated speaking of the many celebrities he's photographed during his career.
"I met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where he called me 'Marqués,'" Larrain says, informing that the Spanish master knew his uncle, the Marqués de Cuevas, a Basque aristocrat, through their collaboration with the Monte Carlo Ballet. "Dali was the first marketing genius in the art world and would have put the likes of Warhol to shame."
The blue-eyed dynamo stutter-steps in front of a large photograph of a man strumming a Spanish guitar as his young son claps his hands and sings. "That's Potito and Changito at the Carbonería in Seville," Larrain crows, as if everyone should be familiar with them.
"When Geo magazine first assigned me to do a photo essay on flamenco in 1983, it was supposed to be for two weeks' work, but I ended up staying two months instead."
Larrain's guide in Seville, armed with a letter of introduction from the Spanish consul, took him to the local tourist traps to find flamenco, but she failed miserably at uncovering it in her own back yard.
"Ironically I ended up meeting a musician while out on my own one night who took me to La Carbonería, where Paco Lira, the owner, introduced me to the authentic flamenco scene."
La Carbonería, a restaurant and hive of Seville's flamenco talent, was the setting of some of Larrain's most striking photographs. The imposing tavern was built atop an old coal yard in the city's Jewish Quarter.
Larrain points to another photo he took outside La Carbonería, where legendary singer Antonio Núñez (a.k.a. "El Chocolate"), immaculately dressed in white, crosses the tavern's threshold into darkness while glancing ominously at the spectator. "I like to think this picture captures a sense of El Chocolate entering eternity," Larrain muses.
The artist pauses to say that food and music are a source of inspiration for him because they relax his subjects. "It makes it easier to connect with people. In 1972, I spent two days working with John Lennon and Yoko Ono documenting one of their 'bed-ins' at their house in the Village on Bank Street. I cooked John breakfast and made him bacon with maple syrup and spices and eggs."
Larrain, with assistants in tow, shifts gears and glides across the gallery while he relates how flamenco helped him break the ice with a gruff Miles Davis. The musician arrived at the photographer's studio growling he had only five minutes for a CBS Records photo shoot.
"Miles showed up at my studio wearing a bowler hat and looked like a henchman from a James Bond movie. I put on an old gypsy record, and Miles said he loved flamenco and told me to grab my guitar and play," laughs Larrain. "So I told him to grab his trumpet and he did, and ended up staying for hours and we shot several album covers and posters while jamming together."
Larrain cuts around tables and boxes, trying to select images for his show. He stops at a box full of pictures and fishes out a portrait of Pepe Romero, noting he was the first musician to introduce the piano into flamenco.
The gelatin silver print depicts the dignified middle-age musician wearing a tux and drinking a glass of amontillado as he sits at the piano. "He was inspired. His was a passion of the heart. Imagine bringing a bourgeois instrument like the piano to the music of the poor like Romero did," croaks Larrain.
He beckons to a photograph of a portly man with Elvis sideburns teaching a young girl how to command the stage. "That's El Farruco with student Carmen Segura," he explains. "He's the grandfather of the Farruco dance dynasty, and she has grown to become one of the greatest flamenco dancers today."
As Larrain gets swept away describing his visits with La Perata and her son El Lebrijano; Fernanda Romero; and Tía Juana la del Pipa, one can almost hear the foot-stomping and castanets.
Larrain's flair for the dramatic is perhaps best encapsulated in the striking photograph of gypsy Mario Maya, one of flamenco's biggest names.
Standing in a barren olive grove, the dancer wears a fierce scowl on his face as he kicks up a heel and crisply slices his arms against his chest.
"In Seville I was exposed to the true roots of flamenco, which are as gnarled and deep as those of the olive tree," says Larrain. "This is pure, raw flamenco from the heart without any sugarcoating and has been a transformative influence in my life. Look, the lens never lies."
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