Jacques Henri Lartigue, the Ultimate Peter Pan of Photography: Interview with Michael Hoppen

Renée, Cannes, Juillet, 1932. Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue © Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L.

 
Deceptively simple, stripped of any artifice, capturing the fleeting moment and holding it forever. Through the eye and in the hands of Jacques Henri Lartigue, the common snapshot got to the heart of photography as an art form.

Jacques Henri Lartigue is such a name in photography and hailed as one of the founders of modern photography that it is hard to imagine that fame arrived late for him. He was almost 70 when he was “discovered” by John Szarkowski, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who decided to exhibit a selection of his images in 1963. Lartigue had been taking photos for decades – photos of his family and friends, of sports, planes and car races and la Belle Époque – and it sure seemed he had been taking all these photographs for himself. Who else but a passionate man about what he is doing can have this kind of drive without a trace of recognition and success? A true artist who never loses that childish enthusiasm, that childlike optimism that is so essential in art.

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.

He didn’t just capture the moment, but reality. Because this is another quality all children have: they tell the truth. He didn’t just snapshot the passing joys of everyday life, but recorded life itself and the specifics of the times, including a poignant portrait of turn-of-the-century France. 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.

“The ultimate Peter Pan of photography”, is how Michael Hoppen, the owner of the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, describes Jacques Henri Lartigue in our interview, providing a fascinating incursion into Lartigue’s universe, and that is the most beautiful and penetrating description of this truly singular photographer. The Michael Hoppen Gallery is one of Europe’s foremost art galleries. Opened in 1992, it was founded out of a passion for photography and they are renowned for curating the works of new and interesting artists alongside acknowledged nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century photographic masters. Jacques Henri Lartigue has a place all of his own among them.
 

John F Kennedy, Florette and a friend at André Dubonnet’s, Cap d’Antibes, August 1953.
Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue © Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L.

 

There is a Lartigue photograph of John F. Kennedy at the house of André Dubonnet, Cape d’Antibes, August 1953. Do you happen to know the story behind that photo?

The photograph by Lartigue of JFK and mystery woman has always intrigued me. Since finding the image in an album at the archive many years ago, I have often tried to find out who the blonde woman was. The woman with the dark hair was Lartigue’s third wife, Florette, and they were at a lunch party at André Dubonnet’s Cap d’Antibes home on the 12 August 1953. But her name has eluded many and although the picture has been now shown on many occasions, it has not thrown up any further details, which is strange, and he made no reference to her name in the notes on the page in his 1953 album. These were diaries and many pages include names, places and events – but not her name.

When William Boyd and I curated a show about Lartigue, the image intrigued us both and we had many conversations about the relaxed and affable manner that Lartigue was always able to capture. That was his secret – he was there but invisible – but always with a smile!

There is such a sense of intimacy and childish curiosity in Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photographs. Photographers are such personalities now and I think this is one element that so distinctively differentiates him from so many photographers. What was it that helped him retain this quality of his photography style throughout his work?

Jacques Henri Lartigue was the ultimate Peter Pan of photography and I have never tired of looking at the 70 years of albums he left. He lived in a gilded cage up until the outbreak of the war, and it was his perfect childhood and an adoring father and family who ignited this child prodigy. His father gave his young son a camera at the age of 8. It fell into his hands and fitted like a glove.

Of course, no one quite realised what he was doing when he was young and thought he was just playing – and playing he was – but with an acute and mature eye and one that captured an extraordinary time in an age when very few carried a camera. His earliest pictures of family, friends and the beautiful creatures he would snap in the Bois de Boulounge have become photographic lore.

Lartigue found a way to capture that fleeting moment when someone reveals himself or herself. He did this again and again and again. It may have been easier as people were still somewhat more relaxed in front of a camera – but then very few have ever been able to do it with such consistency and perfection – and also with surprising technological acumen. Lartigue had this talent rarely seen since.
 

Florette, Talloirs, Eté, 1943. Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue © Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L

 
Is it make or take a photo? I always ask this question to photographers and their answers vary. Lartigue had this incredible ability to capture the moment, the energy and feel of the moment, to register the times, but he was clearly more than a witness. Was it take or make a photo for Lartigue?

Lartigue took photographs, as he never really got involved in the making of the photograph in the darkroom. Print quality was not Lartigue’s ‘thing’ and one would never say his prints were amazing, rich, perfect prints. They are often scratched, unretouched, often slightly out of focus, but ALWAYS perfect for some reason. He broke all the basic rules and somehow the camera became an extension of his eye in ways that have rarely been achieved.
 
 
 

”He felt just as comfortable taking colour pictures as
black and white. However, Lartigue’s black and white
images have so much emotional colour in them
that sometimes the distinction seems redundant.”

 
 
 
Lartigue’s portfolio is very vast, ranging from his iconic Belle Époque frames to his sports photography to his private life snapshots to fashion, which is a less explored part of his work, but which retained some of that carefree quality that defined his entire body of work. How did he make the transition to fashion photography?

Lartigue never really changed his spots. It was fashion that changed. In 1931, Martin Munkacsi took a picture of an American model, Lucile Brokaw, for Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar magazine – it’s what one would call fashion/lifestyle today. And that’s what Lartigue also excelled at. His work was not fashion per se. What he was drawn to and focused on was beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places – it was real and not artificially created or conceived. All the people in his pictures were real. Towards the end of his life, he was commissioned to make commercial fashion pictures. Most of them don’t look like Lartigue photographs. Yes, they are elegant, but contrivance was not part of his talent – he was a natural and it is his work that is copied or emulated by the fashion photographers of today. That’s why Avedon was drawn to him and also Munkacsi – he sees them both as his key influence, as Avedon understood and yearned for that carefree movement and style that Lartigue so eloquently captured.
 

Florette, Côte d’Azur, 31 Juillet-25 Septembre, 1953. Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue
© Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L

 
It was his black and white photography that brought him to the attention of the public, and I believe it is the simplicity and visual power of black and white that best radiates the intimacy and sheer exuberance he brought to his art. But he also filmed in colour and he immediately seized the opportunity to use the colour technology that the Lumière factory released in 1907. Did he prefer black and white or colour?

Lartigue is the exception to the rule. He felt just as comfortable taking colour pictures as black and white. However, Lartigue’s black and white images have so much emotional colour in them that sometimes the distinction seems redundant. Whilst technology in colour films was in its infancy, and therefore the film was much slower, Lartigue still found wonderful subject matter to focus on – most of all towards the latter part of his life. His American photographs in colour from his trip to the USA are wonderful as are his images of Florette, his third wife, in the South of France at their small home in Biot. He loved to experiment and I’m sure if he could have, he would have used Polaroid endlessly, and who knows what he would have done with Instagram in colour – certainly he would have had millions of followers, or should I say disciples! He instinctively knew how to use colour film and changed his style to suit observing rather than capturing. They are calmer images with much less movement but still quite sublime.

What do you think was his most important trait?

Whilst he lived through extraordinary times, as did many, he found a joy in life that was at odds with the temperature of the world. He found the beauty and good in everything he saw and recorded it in a way that was quite definitely his own. The cameras he used, whilst top of the range at the time, had serious limitations, which never seemed to hold him up. In fact, there are articles that claim that the many of his early motion studies (his nanny flying down the stairs) should not have been possible with the technology available, but like with many geniuses, he overcame these limitations with flair and an uncanny ability, why, because Lartigue was a genius!
 

Chou Valton à la plage de la Garoupe, Cap d’Antibes, août, 1932. Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue
© Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L

 
 

The Jacques Henri Lartigue works shown here
are available from the Michael Hoppen Gallery

 
 
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