Jacques-Henri Lartigue created enduring and iconic images of an era through his technique of the instinctive snapshot capturing visions of joy, beauty, elegance, and pleasure. Photographing during the special period of peace in France known as the Belle Époque, many of Lartigue’s pictures remain of historical value as a stylish, yet nostalgic record of those days. Originally intended only for his personal use as a means to preserve his own life’s fleeting moments of joy, Lartigue would be the first individual to use photography to document his own day-to-day experiences.
An incredible natural talent from his earliest years around the turn of the century when Lartigue first experimented with his father’s camera, he was uninfluenced by notions of how images should be shot relying purely on his own instincts. Producing personal images that exude an unprecedented freshness and gentleness, Lartigue possessed an innate ability to capture life and its instances of delight. Although Lartigue would photograph various aspects of his experiences from leisurely activities to early automobiles and airplanes, his photographs of elaborately dressed Parisian Belle Époque women remain among his most well known work. Specifically the elegantly shot Carriage Day at the Races at Auteuil would come to summarize an era and the halcyon days of prewar France.
In 1911, Lartigue increasingly turned his attention to the visual pleasure afforded by photographing the most fashionable and beautiful women of Paris. The kind of spectacle of elegant women on promenade in the Bois de Boulogne and at the gala afternoons at the racetrack fascinated him and beckoned Lartigue to photograph them. Remarking about the women at the races in Paris, Lartigue notes:
In Carriage Day at the Races at Auteuil, Lartigue reveals this spectacle of the dazzling display. In the image, the three hats appear exotic as if they are carefully groomed tropical birds partially obscuring all three of the women’s faces but not their emotions. Stripes accentuate the womanly figures while balancing the unstaged photograph. The extravagant women are seemingly enjoying a different type of spectacle while Lartigue looks on at their own self-made one. Encapsulating not only the fashion of an era, but the era itself, the nostalgic image lends itself to what Lartigue called a “fairy-like epoch.” So much so that in the 1960s when Lartigue’s previously unknown photographs were finally made public, Cecil Beaton drew on this image for his costume designs for My Fair Lady.
Although Richard Avedon had been among the first to praise Lartigue’s work, Lartigue was only “discovered” as a photographer in 1963, at the age of 69, when an exhibition of his work opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He would finally be known as a full-fledged photographer with the status of an artist. Lartigue’s timeless images are now appreciated for their freshness and grace capturing those beautiful and nostalgic moments of an era for posterity. Lartigue had always wanted to stop time holding onto those moments of joy in his life. Through photography he managed to succeed in this and preserve his celebration of life for generations after his own.