Exhibition: Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques Henri Lartigue: A Floating World

At the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice, France, from 17th June to 25th September 2016.

I wasn’t particularly familiar with his work before this, and at first assumed that Lartigue (1894-1986) merited the exhibition here mainly because he was a local lad (he lived in and around Nice for most of his adult life). The content was seemingly quite lightweight: mainly upper class French folks at leisure in the first half of the 20th century.

However, the premise of the show, once I understood it, piqued my interest. The exhibition leaflet explains it as follows (my emphasis): “The exhibition brings together around 200 photographs on the theme of fleeting moments, the brevity of joy and the fragility of life itself (Florian Rodari, 2016).

Maybe this is a stereotypically philosophical French way of looking at a set of photographs! Even so, it made me look at the photos again, and see something a little deeper and more affecting in the images.

Lartigue was known as a painter for most of his career, though had been taking photograph since childhood. He was not recognised by the outside world for his photography until his late sixties. This means that, like Saul Leiter or maybe Vivian Maier, his work stayed true to himself without the unnecessary influence of peers, critics, buyers or gallery owners. He shot what he wanted to, and retrospectively much of it was accepted into the canon of photographic art.

Given the course module I’m on right now, I was particularly interested in his portraiture. There’s an overriding sense of playfulness and curiosity in Lartigue’s work, and this often comes through in his portraits. He mostly shot the upper class at play, and so there’s a real sense of capturing carefree moments of fun and happiness. Most of his portraits are of women, mainly friends and family. This familiarity comes through in the informality – in some cases intimacy – of his images.

Marie Belewsky, Cap d'Antibes, May 1941 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Marie Belewsky, Cap d’Antibes, May 1941 by Jacques Henri Lartigue

There’s one image in particular, above, that stayed with me. The sea, the swimsuit and the wet hair all denote summery leisure but it’s the mask that makes it. It draws attention to the eyes in a direct and unsubtle way, but once you look inside the mask you see that she’s not addressing the camera (/viewer) but looking off to the side to something out of shot. This use of eye-line to drive the viewer out of the frame has the effect of making you imagine what has distracted her, what other fun is being had just out of frame that is more interesting to the subject than looking at the photographer. The composition is exquisitely simple too, with the very slightly askew horizon conjuring up high jinx and the slender triangle of hillside pointing in the same direction of her off-camera gaze. With a portrait like this one can imagine life happening beyond the frame, and that is for me a mark of a great photo. It exudes interest, it’s more than the sum of its parts, it gives the viewer something to contribute to the resolving of the image. I love it.

What have I learned from looking at Lartigue’s work? To be honest, not a massive amount new that I hadn’t learned from other practitioners of the same era. He certainly had an eye for capturing fleeting moments of joy but I wouldn’t put him in the category of the ‘old masters’. He produced a handful of excellent portraits though, including the Marie Belewsky one above that has instantly jumped into my all-time favourite portrait list.

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