Arguably the youngest master photographer ever, Jacques-Henri-Lartigue took family photos that captured the ‘joie de la vie’ of an era
posted Friday, June 21, 2013 at 6:12 PM EDT
Jacques-Henri Lartigue was 8 years old when his father gave him his first camera. Little did he suspect that one day young Jacques' extraordinary photos would be displayed in museums and published in books. The photo on the right shows Jacques-Henri holding the big glass plate camera his father had just given him. With that camera, and many others to come, little Jacques produced an enormous photographic record of the joys and wonders of family life, an achievement any of today's grown-up photographers would be proud to have created.
But for decades his fantastic images remained sealed up in photo albums and scrapbooks meant as family keepsakes, not as photographic treasures to share with the world. That is, until Jacques-Henri was 69 years old, and his photographic genius was finally seen and recognized by the art world.
The family that plays together
Jacques-Henri's story is a fascinating one. Born in 1894, the second son of wealthy parents, Jacques-Henri grew up in a family whose money paid for its fun and toys. He was a slight, small child thrust into a robust family of crazy inventors and mad adventurers.
Lartigue's father built gliders, raced cars and taught his son photography. At the age of six, before getting his own camera, Jacques-Henri took photographs which his mamma pasted in a scrapbook for him -- a scrapbook he kept for nearly eight decades. He learned processing and helped in his father's darkroom. His father, recognizing the boy's enthusiasm for photography, eventually bought him his own camera.
And in such an energetic environment, the camera gave him a role to play as family documentarian. He recorded his father's race cars and his brother's weird inventions, the antics of a crazy uncle and his thrill-seeking cousins. Despite taking thousands of pictures, he never thought of himself as a "serious" photographer. For most of his life, he would dutifully paste his photographs into big scrapbooks that were only occasionally shown to family and friends.
Capturing the joie de la vie of an Era
When Jacques-Henri grew up during the Belle Époque, before World War I, people believed in the words of a famous actress of the day: "Frivolity is the safeguard and the promise of happiness." Most of Jacques-Henri's photographs of his family capture this joie de la vie -- the love of life -- and the absolute frivolity that the family embraced.
Lartigue's family was joyful and exuberant. They lived large in a world that was becoming full of recognizably modern inventions. Edison had invented the electric light, the Lumière brothers were making movies, Dodge and Benz were building cars and Marconi created the radio. For the first time razor blades, vacuum cleaners, ice cream cones, vitamins and aspirins came into use and Jacques-Henri recorded it all. They reveled in it and invented things on their own.
Jacques' father was fascinated by speed and flying, and he had the financial resources to build gliders. Madame Lartigue would help out by sewing large sheets of fabric to the glider wings in their garden. And Jacques documented it all, often going with his brother and "Papa" to see the exploits of other French aviators.
But racing cars were the ultimate passion for Jacques-Henri's father, who drove in major automobile races across France such as the Coupe Gordon Bennett and the French Grand Prix. Jacques' camera was always there producing extraordinary photographs. Almost everyone in this remarkable family was busy doing things. Uncles, cousins and other relatives built and raced wheeled "bobsleds," created animal racing machines, played sports and one even tried climbing the Eiffel Tower.
From scrapbooks to museums
As a teenager, Jacques-Henri sold a few pictures to sporting magazines, but decided to become a painter instead of a photographer. He spent the bulk of his adult life working as an artist and designer. However, he never stopped taking photographs of his personal life -- his vacations, his three marriages, his many mistresses and his very famous friends. He even dabbled in color photography when he experimented with the newly introduced "autochrome" color process.
Over the years, Lartigue would show his photo albums to friends, but it wasn't until 1963, when he was 69, that his photographs were seen by John Szarkowski, then curator of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Szarkowsi recognized Jacque-Henri's genius and arranged an exhibition which propelled JHL into a late career as a full-time photographer. Jacques-Henri soon began to get photo assignments from magazines. His images were collected in books, and his prints began to be displayed in museums around the world.
Full of whimsy, energy and enthusiasm
Jacques-Henri died in 1986. In 2003, Paris's Pompidou Center held a huge Lartigue retrospective titled "l'album d'une vie," which filled the Center's large exhibition halls. His work on such a grand scale was a revelation to me when I saw it.
The image of JHL as a child holding his large wooden box camera is deceptive. Even as a young boy he took photos in many different formats from a variety of glass plate cameras and roll film cameras. As an adult he began using Rolleiflexes and 35mm cameras. Over his lifetime, he produced nearly 120 photo albums, probably the most complete autobiographical record of a life and a family ever made.
As it turned out some of my favorite images, his series of photographs of "flying" cousins and friends captured in midair, were included in the retrospective show. But rather than being displayed as exhibition prints, they were shown in their original form as, of all things, stereopticon pairs. At the Pompidou these 3-D pairs were viewed through 3-D glasses built into display boxes. Suddenly cousins Bichonade and Jean were truly flying in the air! Looking at these whimsical, 100-year-old 3-D images, I realized just how creative that little kid had been.
For me, these boyhood photos, full of energy and enthusiasm are his best. Jacques-Henri Lartigue's family was wealthy, but unlike today's well-to-do -- or for that matter most of us -- they lived their lives in happily exuberant and frivolous ways, giving themselves wholeheartedly to fun and pleasure.