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Sun, Sea and Sexy: Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s Utterly Instagrammable World

Lartigue brings so much pleasure to all who encounter his sublime pictures of the Belle Époque. Who does not fall in love with the timeless elegance of René Perle? Who can fail to be seduced by the parade of beautiful cars and wonderful scenery that was the backdrop to his privileged early life.

Selfies all around: Joan, Florette, Palanpur, “Gribouille”, Sharon Lee, Juan-les-Pins, 1949 © Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L

Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s (1894-1986) photographs of sun-drenched holidays on the French Riviera, fast cars, fashionably dressed subjects, aeroplane flight trials, and casual strolls down the promenade between the Wars vividly capture the image of la Belle Epoque.

And who can also deny his wonderful observation of the gorgeous people he photographed in New York in the 1970s when he was working with the likes of Ruth Ansell at Harper’s bazaar,  or simply documenting the decadent chic of St. Tropez in the 1960s, or the upheaval of old London when Carnaby Street and the Kings Road changed and ruled the world of fashion and culture.

Today, they would find a perfect home on Instagram with their aspirational flavour and definitely garner a lot of ‘likes’ and affectionate ’emojis’ from tastemakers and photography aficionados like fashion designer Paul Smith who has curated this latest double  show at Michael Hoppen’s eponymous Chelsea gallery and at his Mayfair shop.

Happy snapper: French photographer and painter Jacques-Henri Lartigue adopted an informal approach to the photography of everyday subjects

I have never taken a picture for any other reason than that at that moment it made me happy to do so.JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE

A late developer, compared to compatriot, magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue did not come to public attention until his twilight years at 69 when he had his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The floodgates opened afterwards with critical acclaim for his work, several exhibitions and publications. Hitherto, he had just been an amateur in the best traditions. Born into privilege, Lartigue took his first photograph in 1900 at the age of six. His father was a banker, and the family belonged to the upper French bourgeoisie.  Lartigue transfixed the delightful life of the pre-war upper classes with his fleeting visions and a passionate devotion to the pursuit of joy.

Being an amateur became a big advantage as Lartigue had the freedom to choose his subjects without any extraneous influences.This made his range extremely varied, from intimate close-ups – almost portraits – of his beautiful companions, to delightfully sensitive pictures of not much more than shadows on the snow.

Belle Epoque: On the Promenade by Jacques-Henri Lartigue | © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

It is a fascinating contradiction that though his pictures were never meant to be more than personal photographs, his passion and verve in creating – often unconsciously – such alluring images have turned many of these ‘snaps’ into enduring classics. He described his motivation for pressing the shutter: “I have never taken a picture for any other reason than that at that moment it made me happy to do so.” And it showed.

Author William Boyd wrote about Lartigue at the first exhibition of the photographer’s works staged at the Hoppen Gallery in 1998. “Lartigue was most prolific with his camera in the twenties and early thirties; many of his pictures remain of historical value as a unique and stylish record of those days. Lartigue also recorded the development of sport (both on land and sea) and I feel such pictures can only become more fascinating as our new century progresses.

“His passion for the active life is clearly witnessed through the energy of his vision, and during the winter months this energy was unabated. Through the seasons, Lartigue’s photographs glow with an inimitable joie de vivre, portraying a life that many of us can only dream of.”

Hoppen and Smith are both big fans and spent hours trawling through Lartigue’s archives to select some of his unseen works in the latter part of his life for the current exhibitions. The Jacques Henri Lartigue Archives are still maintained by the Ministère de la Culture in France and it was there they discovered, to their delight, that Lartigue’s ability at revealing the joy and essence of the people he had photographed was still very much intact during the latter part of his life, and that the images had been virtually unseen by his fans worldwide. Hoppen hopes the latest oeuvre will ignite new interest in his work.

Not that Smith needs much encouragement as he is clearly smitten by Lartigue’s work. The fashion designer beamed as he guided guests around the show on opening night. Lartigue’s legacy seemed to be in good hands. Hoppen recollects: “In 1998, I asked Paul Smith, to write a small introduction to our very first exhibition of Jacques Henri Lartigue. He very kindly agreed.

Hoppen sees a parallel in Smith and Lartigue. “It was a seminal moment for the gallery as we were showing my favourite 20th century artist and his work was affirmed by a man who I had such huge respect for and whose style was only matched by Jacques’ own. It was a perfect pairing and one that I often go back to, as it set the bar for us. To find two people who exemplify great style, wit and generosity in one show cannot often be repeated.

Come fly with me: In Flight by Jacques-Henri Lartigue | © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

“Twenty years later, I decided to approach Paul again, this time with the idea that he would look at and curate an area of Lartigue’s archive that has rarely been examined – the 50s, 60s and early 1970s, and was delighted when he accepted.” 

Smith was like a little boy in a candy shop as he pruned the collection for the exhibition. “My father was an amateur photographer and his way was always the ‘caught moment’. I’ve always admired Henri Lartigue as the master of the caught moment, so many of his best photos are about a spontaneous moment. And of course, his work is all on film so he’d never know until he was back in the dark-room what would appear.

Isa Stoppi at Central Park for Harper’s Bazaar, New York, 1966 © Ministère de la Culture – France / A.A.J.H.L

“It was an honour and a privilege when Michael invited me to look through Lartigue’s huge archive, go through all the thousands of photographs and scrap-books and narrow the selection down to these few. The exhibitions could’ve been twenty times the size they are.”

Dive into Chelsea or Mayfair if you want to be transported into Lartigue’s world where the sun is always shining and there is joie de vivre in the air.

  • J.H Lartigue, C’est chic! is on at Michael Hoppen Gallery from 31 May-28 July, 3 Jubilee Place, London, SW3 3TD and at Paul Smith, from 2 June-28 July, 9 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4HH

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