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”Jacques Henri Lartigue:
Vintage Photographs, 1905–1932”
Most people who know something about the history of photography—and many who don’t—have seen Jacques Henri Lartigue’s Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France. Made in 1912, the photograph shows a race car zooming past a row of spectators. Because of a quirk having to do with the operation of Lartigue’s camera, the car’s rear tire seems to bend rightward into a cartoonish oval, while the spectators appear to be leaning, Tower of Pisa–like, toward the left. Perhaps more than any other, the photograph has come to embody the early 20th century’s relentless pursuit of speed and new technology.
If you’re old enough, you may have seen Grand Prix next to coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination in Life magazine in 1963, where the image occupied the better part of a two-page spread. Younger people may have seen it—along with countless other photographs by Lartigue—in innumerable photographic surveys and textbooks published over the past few decades. There, carefully cropped and substantially enlarged, Grand Prix would have fit comfortably into our notions of what a widely celebrated photograph should look like.
This is not, however, how one experiences Lartigue’s images in “Jacques Henri Lartigue: Vintage Photographs, 1905–1932,” currently on view at Chevy Chase, Md.,’s, Sandra Berler Gallery. At Berler, Lartigue’s works seem stubbornly unconventional, creations befitting a man who was part child prodigy, part eccentric amateur, and part late-blooming international phenomenon.
Born to one of Paris’ richest families in 1894, Lartigue began photographing as a child—sometime, according to current scholarship, between the ages of 7 and 10. His subjects were primarily those of his elite social class: pre–Model T automobiles, elegantly dressed ladies leading their purebred dogs, and the brand-new world of flying machines and the well-dressed men who cheered them on from the ground.
Were it not for the photographer’s remarkably observant and playful eye, one could dismiss Lartigue’s images as trifles. Consider Liane de Lancy et Berthe Fontana (1911), in which Lartigue makes a boldly diagonal, slatted boardwalk as much a focal point as the two magnificently dressed women who are the photograph’s putative subjects. Or Dofou sur Impression sur Monte Carlo (1911), whose foreground is occupied by a soaring antique biplane. In the background stands a vague, ghostly coastline: a series of mountains and a building fronted by distinguished-looking columns above unsettled sea swells. When one looks closely, the background becomes visible through the aircraft, despite its seeming solidity—an appropriate reminder of the tenuousness of such early flights.
But the value of “Vintage Photographs” is not that it demonstrates how good a photographer the young Lartigue was. Lartigue’s genius is old news. The achievement of the exhibition, rather, is to recapture the haphazard, almost casual nature of Lartigue’s original works. At Berler, one finds a dazzling diversity of photographs that have an identity as objects as well as representations, pieces that seem more like carefully guarded family treasures than international icons.
Save one or two, the Berler images are all prints made by the artist a short time after he exposed the negative. They all belonged to the collection of the artist’s third wife, Florette, who played a significant, if somewhat accidental, role in making Lartigue’s work famous. For decades, Lartigue’s childhood photographic pursuits were almost entirely unknown to the general public. As he grew older, however, he continued to keep his collection intact, mostly in the form of albums—“with concern chiefly for the maximum utilization of every square centimeter of the sheet, and with a heartwarming freedom from obedience to any design principle I knew of, either traditional or modern,” as former Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski once put it.
In 1962, the couple embarked on a sea voyage from Europe to America. Florette, expecting to have lots of free time during the crossing, brought along a stack of her husband’s old prints to retouch. When the couple arrived in the United States, they met with photography agent Charles Rado. The meeting was not designed to be a career-altering moment, but it turned out to be one: Rado was so impressed with the work that he passed it on to Szarkowski and the editors of Life. The following year, the magazine published a series of Lartigue’s early automobile photographs and MoMA mounted the artist’s first retrospective. From there, Lartigue’s renown snowballed.
The Berler show doesn’t include any album pages, but the images on view are important because, despite their visual appeal, they look a lot less like the work of a master than the work of the youngster Lartigue was. Take, for example, Nun on Beach, made in 1905. In Lartigue’s 11-year-old hands, the image is a compelling, split-second tableau. The plump nun and the enigmatic figure to the left provide interesting enough material by themselves, and Lartigue captures with surprising resolution both the whitecaps of the distant surf and the sand grains of the foreground. But what’s most fascinating about the photograph is its size: Nun on Beach is small enough that a silver dollar placed over the print would probably hide it completely. It’s a fun, thoroughly boyish piece of work.
Nun on Beach isn’t the only eccentric or winningly casual photograph on display. In its too-small selection of 14 images, Berler offers such a wide array of print sizes, contrasts, glosses, tinting, and sharpness of focus that the images look like the works of a family rather than an individual. Indeed, they could have come straight from a cigar box in some great uncle’s attic. Tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen leaps to reach a ball. Two men huddle back-to-back, driving a go-kart. Three women sit on cane chairs in the middle of a forest—a bit of absurdity that is, at root, straightforward and unpretentious. One can clearly imagine Lartigue experimenting in the field or in the darkroom, or poring over his prints late at night, trying to fit his jewel-like puzzle pieces onto this page or that.
“Vintage Photographs” pointedly reminds us of the artist’s restless experimentation, carefree exuberance, and raw, developing potential. At Berler, Lartigue’s photographs, so long established as art, suddenly take on the aspect of cherished artifact. I have a hunch that the young lensman wouldn’t have objected. CP