A boy’s own adventure

Privileged images: the photography of Jacques Henri Lartigue

For  the ten-year-old Jacques Henri Lartigue, even taking a bath was a photo opportunity. In fin-de-siècle France, this wealthy, curious and wide-eyed boy took his camera everywhere from the beaches of Biarritz to the slopes of St Moritz. He took it to car rallies, ice rinks, aerodromes and ski jumps. And, in 1904, he set his camera on a board across his bathtub, set the aperture and focus and took a self portrait, his little face emerging out of the water like a frog. His mother released the shutter.

Louise Baring’s new book, Lartigue: The Boy and the Belle Époque, details a golden age as seen through the lens of an unusual photographer. Young Jacques captured the dawn of the 20th century as a time of japes and escapades and the innocent pursuit of the new. But for more than half a century this joyous body of work languished in a bundle of family albums. His story is one of privilege and obscurity, of a buried vision and a late resurrection.

Lartigue was born in 1894, into an haute bourgeoisie bubble. His father, Henri, was a successful banker—and enthusiastic balloonist—who provided a cossetted life of fun, access and opportunity for his sons. “I have plenty of money,” said Henri. “My children should learn how to spend it.” Jacques was given a chunky wooden plate camera when he was seven and a catalogue of models followed—Gaumont Block-Notes, Kodak Brownie, Klapp Takyr—each more advanced than the last. The boy was provided with a darkroom and developing chemicals, and a steady stream of subjects drawn from the comings and goings at their hôtel particulier in Paris.

Simone Roussel, Rouzat, 1913, by Jacques Henri Lartigue © 2020 Ministère de la Culture–France/AAJ HL

Baring has a penchant for such glamour: her previous books have delved into the high life and elegant works of the French photographer, painter and poet Dora Maar and the English fashion photographer Norman Parkinson. But in Lartigue she has a subject who is both elite and elegiac, whose fledgling talent was extraordinary but unrecognised when it emerged. It is on that period—between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War—that she concentrates.

After providing a whistle-stop biography, Baring looks at young Jacques’s four pillars of interest: speed, travel, family and society. Sometimes all four elements overlapped in a single frame. “The subject always finds me,” Lartigue noted. “I am only the spectator. I don’t run after it.” It was unnecessary. Thanks, he said, to his tennis player’s eye, he had mastered the art of the instantanés: images of action frozen in motion.

At the family’s estate in the Auvergne he took pictures of family members, guests and servants as they somersaulted into swimming pools, fell off go-karts and leapt over chairs. When his older brother Zissou built a homemade glider, using sheets borrowed from the mansion’s laundry room, Jacques was on hand to capture the moment the wind lifted him off the ground.

His most famous photographs show a world shifting up a gear. He came of age in the first decade of the 20th century, and witnessed and photographed many of its spectacles: the pioneering flights of Louis Blériot, competitors hurtling down the avenues of Picardie during the French Grand Prix and the rising drama of the first Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett gas balloon race (during which Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, got lost and came down near Hull). One remarkable photograph, taken at a skijoring competition in Chamonix in 1913, fixes the moment a man in a dashing Homburg hurtles across the snow-flats towed by a galloping horse.

The French Grand Prix, Circuit de Dieppe, Normandy, 1912, by Jacques Henri Lartigue © 2020 Ministère de la Culture–France/AAJ HL

His compositions record the playful and emboldened but they are also part of the game: skiers, skaters and cyclists act up for the camera at a time when it was still a novelty. He also focused on the great and good as they pottered around the Bois de Boulogne tipping their hats to each other. The latest fashions impressed and amused him, the men with their canes, the women—invariably photographed from behind—in their buttressed frocks and plumed headwear.

His ideal prey, he said, would stand out among the strollers “like a golden pheasant in a hen coop”. In addition to photographing the haut monde, he drew them in detailed fashion studies. In his teenage years he exhibited great skill as a draughtsman, producing sketches and watercolours of flamboyant orange and green outfits. In his mathematics exercise book, he dashed off a drawing of a woman shrouded in a fine lace veil, her face obliterating his scribbled sums and fractions.

But Lartigue’s work is also interesting for what it doesn’t show. The Belle Époque was not belle for everyone. His photographs do not show the colonial subjects who bankrolled the joie de vivre. This is a photographic microclimate. The Lartigue household included a valet, cook, butler, tutor and private secretary, all of whom were expected to throw balls, goof around and smile for the young man’s camera.

Photography has always fallen foul of snobbery and Lartigue’s legacy illustrates a Venn diagram of cultural haughtiness. It is often described as the epitome of a democratic medium which implies that anyone can make art from it (not true) and that painting, an autocratic medium, one assumes, is of an inherently higher value (equally absurd). Even the term “snapshot” suggests a lack of consideration. But Lartigue’s understanding of composition, perspective and momentum could rival the Futurists at their easels.

He was caught between two judgments: his photographs were seen as hobby shots while his social position meant he couldn’t make photography his profession. It was no job for a gentleman. The irony is that in middle age he took up painting, in the post-Impressionist vein: canvases that are today overshadowed by his photographs.

“Anna la Pradvina, avenue du Bois de Boulogne, 1911”, by Jacques Henri Lartigue, © 2020 Ministère de la Culture – France/AAJ

Perhaps his most obvious British counterpart would be Cecil Beaton, snapper of the tweedy and gowned residents of stately homes and Knightsbridge apartments. Both photographers ploughed a gilded field. “He contrived nothing,” Beaton wrote of his French contemporary. “It is this utter straightforwardness that gives his work an abiding quality.” No one could spike a compliment quite like Beaton. Jealousy may have played a role. While Beaton was something of a castle creeper, Lartigue owned the chateau. And, according to one of his contemporaries, Beaton could barely work the shutter, but even as a child Lartigue was technically adept—he recorded apertures and light readings like other boys noted football scores.

War brought an end to the idyll. Many of the aviators, divers, drivers and tobogganists pictured in Baring’s book were destined for the trenches. Lartigue spent the war as a military chauffeur in Paris but friends and cousins died at the front. “His profound faith in his right to happiness served as a bright shield against the increasingly chaotic world outside,” Baring writes, emphasising that the boy never really grew up.

Lartigue married three times, giving his wives juvenile nicknames such as Bibi and Coco. Baring’s selection of quotes suggest that he used the present tense when he wrote a memoir of his early years. As an adult he tried his hand at writing and commercial illustration for couture houses, as well as oil painting, but recognition as a photographer, his great obsession, continued to elude him.

It was the Americans who recognised his genius. In the mid-1960s the portrait photographer Richard Avedon, having been introduced to his work by curators at MoMA in New York, helped rescue him from obscurity. A MoMA show was followed by a book, Diary of a Century (1970), edited by Avedon. And so the amateur finally entered the canon, just as he turned 70.

Lartigue took some 280,000 pictures, starting in the time of Kitchener and Toulouse-Lautrec and ending eight decades later in the era of Madonna and Microsoft. He died in 1986, aged 92. In his dotage, snowy-haired but still impish, he welcomed journalists to his home on the Riviera where he waxed lyrical about the dreamy days of his youth. He recollected, with plenty of nostalgic flourishes, the dazzling endeavours of a lost age. “I want to stop time,” he said. “As a boy I already had a passion for preserving the fleeting images of life.” The good life, at least.   

Lartigue: The Boy and the Belle Époque by Louise Baring is published by Thames & Hudson, £29.95

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