Jacques Henri Lartigue

“France’s foremost amateur photographer” was what one rather perceptive magazine journalist called Jacques Henri Lartigue in 1952, in an article revealing to an unsuspecting public “the secret passion of a painter.” It was only in the following years that the already sixtyish Lartigue began practicing a bit of commissioned photojournalism. It would be another decade—before MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski discovered the old man as a “true primitive” for pictures he’d taken as a belle époque adolescent—for the first steps toward his canonization to take place.

What would Lartigue have been without photography? A rentier nullity, a socialite painter of dismal attainments. One critic derided his daubs as products of “a hand undirected by the brain.” All the more miraculous then that the camera allowed him to become so much more than he seemed. This exhibition, first seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, reveals Lartigue as one of the great diarists of his time—and no one becomes a great diarist without the most finely tuned sense of observation, an intellectual bent toward one’s own experience that may revel in detailed description yet always aims at epigrammatic summation. By giving as much weight to the 130 albums in which Lartigue collected and arranged his life’s work as to individual prints, the curators—Alain Sayag of the Pompidou and Quentin Bajac of the Musée d’Orsay—have provided a decisively revised view of his career.

Of course it’s the wealth of brilliantly memorable individual images that make the albums so fascinating, and Lartigue produced them over eight decades: To look around at random was to stumble on, say, the photographer’s adored older brother in 1909, in a white suit, dark goggles, and helmet, sitting nonchalantly on the homemade racer whose wheel he’s just mangled; his first wife sitting on the toilet on their honeymoon in 1920, her face reflecting the skeptical indulgence every husband has known; Lartigue’s elderly parents rounding a Paris street corner in 1949 with a dignity equal to their effort; by 1985, Lartigue himself dwindles to a shadow. (“My shadow is a mistress, not a friend.”)

But Lartigue was not just a photographer of domesticity, interested only in himself and his family. The years show a widening and deepening of sympathies. The boyish Lartigue loved machines, and the camera was just one of them; the camera would always retain an affinity for the dash and abandon represented by the bikes, cars, and airplanes that recur so often in his early work. Later he learned other loves—“The one luxury I could not do without is a woman’s company”—and the camera became a companion in erotic bliss and melancholy. The war opened Lartigue’s eyes to broader social realities (extraordinary scenes of the liberation of Paris in 1944 are followed twenty-four years later by equally vivid views of the événements of May); and old age opened them to a more reflective introspection. Although the late albums show Lartigue hobnobbing with photographic heavyweights like Richard Avedon, who edited the first book of Lartigue’s pictures, Helmut Newton, and Ansel Adams (the subject of a rude visual joke), he never lost the blessed amateurism that makes him so inspiring: Who else provokes such a strong urge to make photographs oneself?

Barry Schwabsky