Portraying the effervescent glamour of bourgeois French society and capturing the essence of early 20th century France, Jacques-Henri Lartigue is remembered as one of his country’s most original photographers. Born June 13, 1894 in Courbevoie to a wealthy family, Lartigue was gifted a camera by his father at a very young age and began taking pictures when he was just six years old. He used his camera to create a visual diary that documented the social and personal lives of his family and friends. Lartigue is now considered the first child prodigy of photography. From the beginning, his photographs preserved moments with a snapshot aesthetic, depicting the simple and joyful pleasures in life. Paris of the 1900s was a very dynamic time. It was the age of race cars, early luxury cruise liners, airplanes, and fashion. Whether he photographed his friends and family on vacations, in their home, on the racing circuit, or the women walking along fashionable promenades, Lartigue’s imagery always captured, in a fresh and romantic nature, everything he experienced. For Lartigue, photography became a passion.
Lartigue was professionally discovered late in life, in 1963, after a friend brought his work to New York and presented it to MoMa’s Director of Photography John Szarkowski, who almost instantaneously gave him a show which contained a small number of his extensive body of work from childhood to the 1920’s. This exhibition jumpstarted his career and he would go on to have numerous institutional photography shows beginning in the mid 1980’s. Labeled by Richard Avedon as “the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer,” Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s imagery was never made to be didactic or historical, rather his photographs have an air of innocence and nostalgia that sprung from a perpetual desire for visual discovery. They are precious, physical representations of Lartigue’s privileged life. In contradiction to what was deemed as “fine art” photography at the time, his light-hearted practice separated him from his contemporaries. He was never overly concerned with the technical aspects of the art of photography, yet he always displayed a knack for composition. He developed his photographs in a small darkroom at home, and would compile them in books much like family photo albums. Later on, Lartigue would supervise the printing of larger silver prints from his original glass plates that often needed restoring. The process was challenging but certainly rewarding.
“Kerisdan, Brittany,” made in 1976, and titled after the beach in France where the picture was taken, is a lovely example of one of Lartigue’s pleasant remembrances. As snapshots of time, his photographs profile his personal history. This image in particular embodies the spirit of summer as it depicts a young boy standing in the water amongst two dogs, one taking flight, and one resting patiently on the sand, representing the playfulness of a summer’s day. Taken when Lartigue was 82 years old, “Kerisdan, Brittany” is a sentimental reflection of how he was able to relive his youth and shows that these moments of elated observation remained with him through old age. With innate skill, his photographs are a unique depiction of early modernity and pay homage to French Impressionists and Post-impressionists who had an interest in portraying leisure activities and the beauty of their surrounding landscapes, whether it be a beach, a garden, or famous boulevard. Lartigue’s photographs stand the test of time while capturing the essence of humanity and the spirit of life with an inescapable dexterity. He is remembered as one of the most gifted and enchanting pioneers of photography.