In the summer of 1963, on the eve of the first major exhibition dedicated at MoMA to Jacques Henri Lartigue (Courbevoie, Paris, 1894 – Nice, 1986), the legendary curator of photography, John Swarkowski, invited Richard Avedon to see the work. “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” the American photographer wrote in French. “You transferred me to your world, isn’t that, after all, the purpose of art?” At 69 years old, this great photographer emerged from the darkness, who today, almost immediately, identifies himself with the pleasant and carefree sophistication of the Belle Époque.
Many of the images on display at the time, and others that would help underscore his prestige as a forerunner of modernity, were taken before the artist turned 18. In fact, his premature and creative sensibility began to manifest itself at six Or seven years, when he began to fantasize about catching images with just the quick blink of his eye. A procedure to which he gave the name of piége d’oeil (the eye trap) and that manifested a purpose that he would keep for life: to capture a moment before his inevitable disappearance.
It was his father, Henri Lartigue, who, understanding the boy’s frustration at the attempt, gave him his own camera; a bulky plate camera, built by J. Audouin, shutter-free and attached to a tripod. Thus, given to an act of passion, the author managed to retain those fleeting moments, and obsessively instinctively converted everything that pleased or surprised him into the reason for his work. Her parents, her older brother, Zissou, her governess, her cousin’s fall while driving a kart, the days in the snow, or the amusing anecdotes of a summer day at the beach; All this reflects the pleasant experiences of a young witness of that spirit of optimism that characterized the end of siecle in France.
Written by Louise Baring and published by Thames & Hudson, Lartigue: The Boy and the Belle Époque, He goes through the author’s extraordinary childhood and adolescence through his drawings, extracts from his diaries and his photographs. Although many have been published monographs on the author, as a whole they tend to examine the work from a photographic perspective. This new monographic acquires a more biographical tone. “There have not been many books that delve into Lartigue’s childhood in such detail,” the author notes during a phone conversation. This includes those images taken from the time he took his first steps in photography until 1914, when the artist turns 20 and the outbreak of World War I marks the end of the Belle Époque. The author offers an intimate approach to the author, linked to the social and cultural portrait of the time; the world described by Proust, the affable Arcadia by Pierre Bonnard, and the enthusiasm of an age, exacerbated by the incorporation of technology, scientific discoveries, and the flourishing of art.
“It created, in a way, a new visual language for the 20th century,” says Baring. “There is a very peculiar exuberance and spontaneity in his work, rooted in his childhood, something we do not find in any other author. It was certainly a wonder. From an early age he was extremely disciplined in his work. He was fortunate to identify his vocation very early and dedicate himself to it. ”
His father, a self-made businessman, who came to possess the eighth largest fortune in France, was a key figure in his development. His particular appreciation of the world led him to homeschool his two children with guardians. “I have enough money. My children must learn to spend it ”, I would say on one occasion. He came from an ancestry of scientists and engineers, from which the photographer would undoubtedly inherit his technical prowess and curiosity. A photography enthusiast, he stimulated and guided his son through the ins and outs of the environment, teaching him to reveal in the dark room set up in his home. Father and son shared a carefree and adventurous sense of life.
“The difference between them was that the father saw photography as a branch of science, in the same way that many amateurs of the time did, while the son’s approach was motivated by his love of images,” he points out. Baring. “Lartigue was never interested in any academic subject. His tutors had problems teaching him, but he was very fast. At the age of ten he mastered all the technical aspects of photography. In delicate health, he was also very prone to feigning illnesses to skip classes and be free. Her parents worried, perhaps excessively, about her health, but there were no antibiotics and tuberculosis killed 10,000 people a year in Paris. ”
The book shows his early self-portraits, where he carefully and at the appropriate distance placed the camera so that his mother, or his governess, activated the shot. Images that throughout his life he will treasure in albums. Inspired by media pioneers like Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, he was drawn to capture the movement. In The Grand Prix of France (1912), one of his most iconic photographs, moves the camera during the shot, keeping the focus on the driver as observers appear on the other side of the sidewalk as tilted shadows. It is precisely this blurring that underlines the sense of movement that it was intended to capture. Anna la Pradvina walking along the Bois de Boulogne “Synthesizes in an exemplary way his ability to anticipate the moment. To the left of this majestic figure, a car appears at the right moment. If the vehicle had been behind it would detract from the protagonist ”, explains Baring. “It should be remembered that years later, Cartier-Bresson would use the sophisticated and light Leica, while Lartigue carried a very bulky artifact and made use of primitive technology, making this image a prodigious milestone. “
He never dodged the tragic moments. However, he admitted not wanting to preserve them, “not even in memory because they hurt me,” he confessed in an interview with the BBC in the last stage of his life. The gloomiest image we find in the book shows a battalion of the French army during maneuvers in 1911. Their rifles appear like trees silhouetted by a gray sky, where an airplane flies. Everything seems to suggest the horror of the war that was coming. Lartigue never approached the front, he passed the war at the Château Rouzat, in Auvergne. “Most of his work is a celebration of life. She was very sensitive and needed to protect herself from reality, ”says the author.
Thus, “his figure and his work have been misinterpreted by many, who have not stopped to look beyond the economic and social environment that surrounded him, observing him as a privileged person.” Where there is an interpretation of complacency and frivolity there could be an excess of sensitivity. “He has been judged for being only interested in his own world. And although the latter could be true, it does not stop being a serious work, ”Baring highlights. “I believe that something can be excellent without being extremely serious. Many think that photography comes from a higher sphere of creation and that its author defines himself as an artist. I do not think so. In his diaries the seriousness with which he took his work is reflected. With order, extreme discipline and a lot of dedication. He was very frustrated when he missed an opportunity. It should be noted that in those days photography was not considered an art. Being a photographer was not like a bourgeois. On the other hand, being a painter was what he would later become, but his talent appears as a photographer. Despite his great creativity, at the time his intention was simply self-satisfaction. ”
Despite what might be expected his life was not a path of roses. In 1917 his father lost his fortune, and the great depression carried away what little was left. Like the Belle Époque, her past life faded and her work reminds us today of the fragility of existence. “The lack of an academic education and the excessive care with which he grew up made it difficult for him to find a source of subsistence. Added to this, he preferred not to have money to sacrifice his freedom. He passed many difficulties. Sold a photograph after World War II. I had in an interview with Le Monde who once invited him to dinner at the Maxim’s, but he had no money for the subway. It was the Americans who discovered him. Today he is one of the few photographers whose attraction goes beyond the world of photography. People who are not particularly interested in photography recognize their images. Something unusual.
Lartigue. The Boy and the Belle Époque. Louise Baring. Thames & Hudson. 192 pages. 32.10 euros.