A Sporting Life: In Search of Its Lost Elegance

Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue

 

Snow makes everything better, doesn’t it? Not just because snow somehow blocks out the rest of the world and you become aware of your own unique place in it, or because there is nothing quite like winter in nature in the snow, experiencing the inner peace and calm from being in the midst of the pine forests and pristine snow slopes combined with the equally fascinating and intimidating feeling of being up there, but because snow reveals quite like nothing else that childlike side that never fully leaves us as adults. Once again I find myself drawn to Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photography, this time his hiver collection, and the key words here are the ones used by Michael Hoppen when I talked to him last year about Lartigue’s photography: “the ultimate Peter Pan of photography”, he named him.

The world was Lartigue’s playground and he seemingly pointed his camera guilelessly around, but he absolutely knew what he was doing, because he could see things other people, and things other photographers as a matter of fact, passed unnoticed. Just like a child who still believes in magic. He never parted with this spirit of playfulness, lightness and spontaneity, with this penchant for movement and freedom, and this is what inherently defined his photographic eye. And to register the world go by in such a positive and instinctive way decade after decade is truly a very rare gift and validation of his enduring greatness as a photographer. “The world of alpine sports had a formative influence on his vision,” writes on Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue. “The skis, sleds, skates, curling, bobsleighs and even propeller-driven sleds flew past and provided a perfect pretext for his visual apology for movement. Even if snow also brought more intimate, contemplative moments.”

He didn’t just capture the moment, but reality. Because this is another quality all children have: they tell the truth. He was able to capture a whole story in a second or two, before trotting off, again daydreaming, again action in mind, in an unhurried pursuit of his art. Lartigue simply looked at the world prepared to take it all in. Just like children.
 

Robert Redford photographed by John Dominis, 1969.

 
True, there was a different kind of reality back then, before photographs, “instead of just recording reality”, as Susan Sontag wrote in her incredibly prescient 20th-century criticism that speaks a rampant, painful, disquieting truth, decades in advance, about the state of 21st-century culture, “have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.” That spontaneity from photography is largely lost because everyone is now so aware of being photographed, looked at, perceived in a certain way. If you want to have a memory to cherish a lifetime, take a photo of the one you want to photograph without their knowing you photograph them.

And when you are less self-conscious, elegance sits differently on you. Some people swoon over glamorous photos from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50. I’m no stranger to that feeling either. But give me a photograph of someone in a wooly ski attire, let’s dub them winter style heroes, from a few decades ago and that would spark a ten times fold fascination in me. Skiers wore wool instead of moisture wicket techno fiber jackets and they looked great while doing it. And they looked like, well, individuals. I like celebrating individuals, whose personalities are rooted in authentic values and style, just as I like to celebrate the culture, stories and style that surround sports.

“Style can be so many things, but it’s very personal in the end,” Lisa Bergstrand, the founder of A New Sweden, a brand that makes its products locally only from Swedish wool, told me in our interview – their vision is to take ownership of their products, cradle to cradle, and to make clothes for longevity, both from an aesthetic and quality perspective. And they started with wool because it is a wonder material – naturally antibacterial, water-repellant, that helps regulate the body temperature.
 

Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue

 
There is something incredibly enduring whenever sports and style come in play together. And Jean Claude Killy is one who exemplifies that to perfection. The man who dominated Alpine skiing in the mid-to-late ’60s and swept the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (subsequently dubbed the Killympics) by winning the whole three alpine events, Downhill, Giant Slalom and Slalom, looked the part in form-fitting, geometrical patterned racing woollens, and he took a style rooted in function one step further and paved the terrain for après-ski and day-to-day wear, opting for rollneck cable-knit sweaters, shearling jackets and knitted beanies.
 

Jean Claude Killy. Photograph courtesy of Rolex.

 
In Downhill Racer (1969), one of the best movies about sports, about winning and the mystique of sport, Robert Redford is David Chappellet, member of the US skiing team. “What does winning really mean?” was what Robert Redford, one of the producers and the one who brought director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter James Salter together, wanted the movie to be about. Skiing and winning are all that matter to Chappellet, a character that is presented unidimensional, from the angle of a driven, self-centered professional sportsman, without insisting on any personal drama or feelings. “I’ll be famous, I’ll be a champion”, Chappellet tells his father, that’s all he is interested in, dismissing any interest even in the financial side.

But there is also Redford’s sweater trim silhouette, namely the black pullover with a chest-crossing black and white stripe, that any discerning sportsman, and any man and woman for that matter, should channel today. It’s minimalist, modern, so classically sporty. It was the time of Jean Claude Killy, when the best downhill racers wore sweaters of pure wool. If it was good back then, why wouldn’t it be good today? My grandfather, an active man his entire life who always lived (and could only have lived) in the countryside, where the winters used to be much harsher than they are now, never wore a jacket. His winter outerwear was a thick hand-made woolen pullover, worn with a proper base layer, and a sheep shearling vest on top of it. I believe in family traditions and that rich experiences involve people and nature and not much material stuff, and I also believe in simple, timeless sports traditions. Reclaiming natural fibers should go hand in hand with our newly-refound reconnection with nature, steeped in an elegant practicality.

“It was the ’70s and skiing was the scene. Everyone wanted to be outdoors with each other, bold and beautiful and kissed by the sun. It was like nature was a game. The air got you high, the sky, and there was the feeling of something wondrous and once in a lifetime.” – The God of Skiing, by Peter Kray.
 

Robert Redford in “Downhill Racer”, 1969. Wildwood Enterprises, Paramount Pictures.

Robert Redford and cast on the set of “Downhill Racer”, 1969. Wildwood Enterprises, Paramount Pictures.

 

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