The Unique Photography of Lartigue
Walking into The Frick Museum of Pittsburgh is like being transported to another time. The converted 19th century mansion of Henry Clay Frick and his family now houses Fast Cars and Femmes Fatales, a collection of photographs originally taken by Frenchman Jacque Henri Lartigue in the early 1900s. While these photographs can be described as domestic, the life of the Lartigue family had no shortage of action to be captured.
Lartigue was born into a privileged family in 1894 and began taking photographs at the age of six, the same time that the infamous Kodak Brownie camera entered the market, making photography accessible to amateurs and children. He quickly outgrew the smaller, mass-market cameras, and since money was no object for his family, he soon had a full-sized view camera of his own to create images of beautiful quality.
The exhibition displays images from 1907-1958, beginning with some of the boyhood images that were made famous by Charles Rado of the Rapho agency in 1963 when Lartigue was 69. Given that Lartigue was still a child when he took the images, the photographs are strikingly beautiful. What makes these prints from a glass plate negative particularly compelling is that they were created not by a meticulous and practiced professional but by a child.
Lartigue’s father often lent him his camera to use, and the image produced by a view camera with glass plate negatives has a unique quality that is said to transcend even the high resolution of today’s digital cameras. An image of Lartigue’s father driving 55 mph in one of his many cars is blurry because of the motion, but this enhances the image’s accessibility to the viewer. Without the formality of a well-composed photograph, the viewer feels personally invited into the exciting events of Lartigue’s life.
Soon after the boyhood images, the exhibit presents a series of fashion photographs taken in Paris. The hats alone are stunning, and the posture of the actresses and fashionistas radiates confidence. They likely set a precedent for one of the most prominent street photographers of the era, Henri Cartier-Bresson. While Cartier-Bresson’s images were grittier and more representative of the city as a whole, Lartigue’s shots were a study of a microcosm of opulence, celebrity, and beauty.
We also get a glimpse of the Grand Prix of 1913 with racecar driver Dario Resta. One image shows us the perspective from the headlights to the driver’s seat with the long expanse of engine in between. Lartigue also had fun with the audience, capturing a moment where women and men are lounging by the side of the track, in a posture suggesting complete boredom.
His satirical eye is also apparent through many images of the exhibition. One image in particular can elicit a genuine belly laugh in the middle of a generally quiet exhibition hall, so be careful. This image is of a friend, Sascha, whom is pictured getting slammed in the head by a wave.
This photograph is amazing because, in order to get it, Lartigue had to have brought a 5x7 inch view camera (picture one of those old time cameras with the accordion-looking bellows) into the ocean. After the initial visual impact, you notice the image is titled, “Sascha’s only swim.” These moments of humor are scattered throughout the show, displaying the artist’s playful side.
The women of Lartigue’s life are also represented in the show. The only two color images shown are of Bibi, Lartigue’s first wife. A subsequent series of pictures showcase Lartigue’s two other wives — both of whom are young, beautiful, and fashionable. Their expressions are as practiced as those of models, and the clothing and jewelry makes one suspect that these are photographs from Vogue magazine.
The last, and arguably most famous, series of photographs is a collection on Pablo Picasso, from a time when he and Lartigue were spending time together in Paris. They are rare and intimate photos of the painter in the later years of life.
Lartigue was a painter and photographer that liked to shoot slice-of-life pictures: intimate moments of his family and friends, sporting events like tennis and racecar driving, or outings to the aviation field. His “day-to-day” life consists of almost unbelievable adventure. The photographs’ informal nature and satirical bent combined with their skillful execution invite the viewer to experience France in the early 20th century for themselves.