Photographer Sergio Purtell spent years travelling the continent at length, capturing a romantic world of motels, cafes, beaches and bars.

Photographer Sergio Purtell spent years travelling the continent at length, capturing a romantic world of motels, cafes, beaches and bars.

In 1973, at the tender age of 18, Sergio Purtell fled his hometown of Santiago, Chile, for the United States. The decision came after General Augusto Pinochet and Admiral José Merino lead a coup d’état, killing the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. 

Once situated in his new home, Purtell began studying photography, going on to receive a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and an MFA from Yale. 

Photography had the ability to sustain time itself – it was to be discovered not constructed,” Purtell says. “One could use one’s intuition to drive one’s motivation. Suddenly the world started to make sense to me.” 

In the summer of 1979, Purtell decided to make a pilgrimage to Europe to discover the birthplace of Western art, an annual practice he would continue well into the mid-’80s. He purchased a Eurail pass to travel the continent at length, staying in seedy motels, visiting local cafes, beaches and bars, and amassing a glorious archive of his adventures, just published in the new book Love’s Labour (Stanley/Barker).

“I found myself in Europe with a camera in my hand feeling like I belonged there, walking through public spaces and sometimes creating friendships that would allow me to enter more private spaces,” Purtell says. “I had learned to move in an elliptical fashion, always allowing fate or destiny guide me and put me mindfully were I needed to be. Arriving in Europe for me was like stepping back in time, to where all colonialism in the Americas had begun.”

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Journeying from city to city without a plan, Purtell revelled in the pleasures of Paris, Venice, Barcelona, Santorini, Berlin and beyond. Like his father, who arrived in Chile in 1954 after riding a Harley Davidson down the Pacific Coast from Fairbanks, Alaska, Purtell was the inveterate traveller.

His travels across Europe reminded Purtell of the home he had fled. “My maternal grandfather was from Moldova and my grandmother’s ancestors had come from Germany in the 1800s. Cities in Latin America feel more European than in the United States.”

Where the pace of American life can be relentlessly frenetic, Purtell found solace in the European way of life. “Leisure time is fluid and plans are not concrete,” he says. “One is open to new possibilities, relations, friendships, new places and experiences. I meet someone new at a beach and get invited for dinner at their home, where there were five other guests who knew each other and where I was the welcome newcomer.”

“Europe offered romance, not in a purely carnal way but in how people presented themselves: their openness, the articulation of gestures, the suppleness of a walk, their poise – all which made it easy to render the visual nuances of a moment, and the mysteries and delight in a social world. The pace of life was certainly slower, and people were more accessible, less tense and stressed out. It seemed like Europeans had more time to enjoy life.” 

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Love’s Labour is published by Stanley/Barker, and available now.

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