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Jacques Henri Lartigue: Collecting Life in Colour, Paris

September 1, 2015

ArtsPhotography | by Harry Seymour

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality… one can’t possess reality – one can possess images”, writes American author Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977). Jacques Henri Lartigue may however have well disagreed with Sontag. The French photographer, whose coloured plates are exhibited for the first time at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, was obsessed with life, nature and colours – it is through the medium of photography that he found how to best capture the beauty of the reality that surrounded him.

Florette , Opio, April 1960. Ektachrome 6x6
Florette , Opio, April 1960. Ektachrome 6×6

This exhibition at the MEP is a rare occasion to discover a lesser-known aspect of the photographer’s work. Jacques Henri Lartigue was born in Courbevois in France in 1894, and already at the age of 8 he was fascinated with the idea of collecting fleeting moments on camera. It is only in 1963 that he gains international fame, when an exhibition is dedicated to him at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, only 43 out of 100,000 of his plates were displayed, all consisting of his work in black and white. Today, the MEP is finally inviting the public to glimpse at a whole other side of his character and his work. It presents the man as a painterly practitioner, in a constant quest to capture every single delightful detail offered to him by life on canvas or camera.

“It is with my eye of a painter that I see everything”, declared Lartigue. The artist finds nuances in nature, which he desperately tries to seize. From the evolution of light from dawn to dusk, to the cyclical movement of seasons, to the formation of dew, Lartigue is fascinated by, what he calls, the small “miracles” of nature. He himself questioned, “How can one remain unmoved by the harmony of colours offered by nature?” The artist is further obsessed by a desire to represent what he considers invisible to those unable to appreciate it. The multitude of shots of specific subjects such as the poppy flower or the morning fog, further demonstrates this fascination. More poet than photographer, Latrigue’s plates divulge an intimate dialogue between man and nature. At times, they resemble more closely an Impressionist painting of a field of poppies or a foggy train station, rather than a scene extracted from his contemporary Sixties. His adoration for seasons, in particular spring which he is said to await eagerly every year with a childlike thrill, further recalls the late Nineteenth-century art movement, and in particular the serial canvases of Claude Monet – himself obsessed with recording the subtlety of nature.

His preoccupation with collecting the exciting immediacy of life is intertwined with a fixation on catching colours. There is no capturing of life for Lartigue, without the beauty and energy of colours. At the early age of 17, after discovering the technique of Autochrome invented by the Lumières brothers, which allows colours to become processed, he was finally able to come closer to this reality that he is so mesmerized by through his images. Abandoning the technique for its lack of spontaneity, he turned to black and white photography. Most of the plates exhibited at MEP date from the 1960’s but as the exhibition aims to demonstrate, their energy is almost futuristic. The photographer is able to find life where there would appear to be none; whether it be at a rainy funeral or in a field of snow, the colours remain vivacious.

Florette, Provence, May 1954. Ektachrome 6x6
Florette, Provence, May 1954. Ektachrome 6×6

However, there appears to be an unfortunate paradox in his life. If he is delighted by the small “miracles” existing in nature, he is also constantly worried about how quickly it all seems to vanish. Lartigue movingly declared that whenever something was too pretty, or when the weather was nice, this would lead to his “petite maladie” (small illness): a combination of marvel and desperation.” (Journal, July 1913). His photographs further reveal a desire to capture the entirety of the sensual experience of nature. For Lartigue was not only obsessed with what he saw, but by what he felt. Some photographs are for example accompanied by a small description of the moment, as if to have it survive in its closest form. The exhibition allows the public to enter into the intimate, and somewhat nostalgic world of the artist. Are exhibited journals recording the daily weather and evaluating the quality of the day, further means for the artist to preserve every details of his life. These pages, which acted as “aide-mémoire” (memento) for the artist and where were often doodled clouds, flowers and more, and are further witness of how aware Lartigue was of the fleeting nature of life. Calling himself a taxidermist of life’s passing things, his photographs enabled him to defy time and desperately try to keep these moments alive.

And yet, the photographs are not nostalgic. They exude energy and gaiety, and while they may first appear staged or constructed, they are only the fruit of life’s joy and spontaneity. Their fun and colorful compositions further prove that it is the eye of a painter that hides behind the lens. Between the vivacious colors, and the quirky moments captured, these photographs reveal how much a lover of life Lartigue was. With his positive and poetic vision of the world, which the exhibition likens to that of a musical, the artist has successfully been able to capture the beauty and fun that exists in nature. According to Sontag, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, and while her judgment may have intended to be pessimistic on the practice of photography, Lartigue illustrates it perfectly. There is no need to construct anything, as nature has already excelled at it. One only needs patience and awareness to fully appreciate it.

By Margaux Donnellier

Lartigue: La Vie en Couleur exhibited at Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), from 24/06/15 to 23/08/15