FATHER OF THE FAMILY SNAPSHOT : THE BROADER PICTURE

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUMMER in Arles, at the annual photo festival which has been held there for the past 25 years, several hundred people sat out late at night on the stone terraces of the old Roman theatre to watch an audio- visual presentation of the photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue. It sounds rather unexciting now, a jumped-up version of the family slide show, but they know how to do these things in France - with multiple projections and atmospheric sound and decent narrative - so it was a magical experience, sitting under the stars watching Lartigue's photographs of little bi-planes and box-kites - the crazy attempts at flight he loved to capture - flash on and off the screen like moths against a blind.

So well-loved is he now, universally acknowledged as the father of the family snapshot, it's odd to think that Lartigue, who was born in 1894 and took his first pictures before the age of 10, was virtually unknown to the outside world until 1963, when, following a 10-page feature in Life magazine, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him his first international show. He'd grown up alongside photography, and in 70 years he'd pretty much tried out every innovation as it came along. His first camera was "made of polished wood, with a lens extension of green cloth in accordion folds. It has . . . a tripod stand . . . taller than I am . . . I have to climb on a stool to be able to use [it]." But by the age of eight, he'd got a better, smaller, quicker hand-plate camera that took several exposures in succession. Then he moved on to a stereoscopic camera, which took two identical images that gave a 3-D effect when viewed through a stereoscope. By 1912 he had a Pathe 35mm cine camera, and by 1915 he was experimenting with colour. By 1927 he'd abandoned it.

Lartigue was never a professional photographer. He came from a wealthy family which provided him with sufficient funds and much of his subject matter for most of his life. He consigned every picture, titled and dated, to a series of albums; he kept a diary; and, most surprising, he made little sketches of what he had photographed each day.

"It was a sort of obsession," he explained much later, "to catch the passing moment," and so often this gave his pictures a special kind of poignancy. He loved to catch anything in motion - people, animals, cars, boats, planes - a passion for the new mechanical age he shared with the Italian Futurists. But the resulting pictures - with the soft-focus quality that came from the blur of motion - have much more in common with Impressionism, particularly as among his favourite subjects were the fashionably-dressed women in the Bois du Boulogne or at the racetrack with their billowing black striped dresses and little parasols.

His older brother Maurice, nicknamed Zissou, seems to have spent much of his adolescence trying to fly. He graduated from umbrellas to box-kites to primitive gliders, taking off, with the help of his relations and to the astonishment of the locals, from the fields around the family chateau at Rouzat. Some of Lartigue's funniest and most beautifully composed pictures are those, such as the one shown here, in which Zissou attempts to leave the ground in every winged contraption imaginable.

In old age, it was another, then much more famous photographer, Richard Avedon, who, after discovering Lartigue in 1963, edited the book which would make his snapshots famous around the world: Lartigue's Diary of a Century. This week, just over a century after his birth, a Lartigue exhibition opens at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. Despite the fact that he lived until 1986 - just in time to see digital imaging - and took up colour photography again in the Seventies, Lartigue's pictures will always be synonymous with the first quarter of the century. His pictures are attractive to us because they offer up the communal idea of childhood: carefree, mobile, fleeting. !

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