Colourful nostalgia through the lens of Jacques Henri Lartigue

Imagine the scenery for a nostalgic movie, located in the French countryside. Now add a rather beautiful creature, which looks just like nature itself: pure and imperfect. 

Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894–1986) is regarded a pioneer in the history of photography, famously discovered by the art world and given an exhibi­tion at MoMA in New York when he was in his late Sixties.

Originally rooted in fine arts, Lartigue took his first photograph at the age of seven after receiving a camera from his father. Later his passion for photography started sculpting by recording the pastimes and glamour of a wealthy Parisian milieu, indulging his fascination with sports and aviation, which he recorded with the unique method of a stereoscope.

During his photography career, he was helped by his father, whose penchant for sport and speed enabled the young Lartigue to access a rich source of subject matter. Then, in 1911, when his family moved to Paris, Lartigue expanded his repertoire by turning his lens towards the fashionable people of the Bois de Boulogne and thereby recording the urban sophistication of Europe’s most glamorous city.

These early images have a very nostalgic feel. They manage to carry the viewer to another century and another perception of beauty, too. 

Throughout his long life the Frenchman has never been seen about without his camera.  In the course of his photography his friendships extended to cultural icons such as Pablo Picasso and Federico Fellini, but he also made thousands of photographs of his family, wives, and lovers. Indeed, the photographs always show a rather personal and intimate approach in a way, without ever showing too much of the personality that stood in front of the camera. 

Although primarily known for his black-and-white works, Lartigue is said to have loved colour film, while experimenting a lot with the Autochrome process and embracing Ektachrome in the late 1940s. His colour work is astonishingly alive. The liveliness may be rooted in the natural landscape of French and Italian countryside, but also in the women he depicted so elegantly. One of the core reasons for him using colour films may be found in his early activities as a painter. During his artist career he found that fine arts and photography (usually taking photos of his paintings during the process) would complete each other quite marvellously. 

Lartigue once said: 

“For me, colour and life can never be separated for I have always been a painter, which may be why I watch everything with the eyes of a painter.”

These colours are telling stories about romanticism, distant places and most importantly about people and moments they were living – even the most tragic moments seem to carry liveliness thanks to the colourful photography (which I’d rather call the art) of a pioneer called Lartigue.

Without any doubt he could capture fleeting moments of happiness but also moments of grief and meditativeness like no other. His view through the lens was first and foremost conducted by his curios mind who by some is even described as the mind of a child. Indeed he had a boyish enthusiasm for the camera’s ability to stop time, and found great satisfaction in freezing images of friends jumping, cars moving, planes flying and other similar visual impacts.

Besides painting and photography, another obsession of Lartigue had been nature and his garden. He imagined that planting flowers would give him the chance to watch carefully the process of natural growth and development. Even the smallest and most unremarkable flower caught his attention insofar that he decided to capture a flower series, depicting his favourite flower Florette, too. Sometimes she is depicted in the back of a huge garden, sometimes she’s shown with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. However, the sensitiveness of romance towards Florette and love towards the changes in the environment never is missing. 

His obsessions can be seen as collections, since he was a collector of images, autographs, records, conquests, etc. It even seems that some of his subjects became an obsession. That is why we can find hundreds of images of poppies in his albums as well as views from his window in Opio – without forgetting images of his wives.

Finally, at the core of these works lies a concept of nostalgic beauty, which is what honours Jacques-Henri Lartigue handwriting or in his case rather his hand printing, since photography was a way to escape his own contemporary time.

Bibi, Rouzat, April 1921
Bibi, Cap d’Antibes, May 1920
Bibi, Paris, 1921
Bibi, Nice, 1921
Jacques Henri Lartigue , Florette, Opio, Avril, 1960
Florette, Opio, April 1960
Florette and Stéphanie in the exotic gardens of Monaco, April 1964
Florette, Piozzo, 1960
Florette, Megéve, March 1965
Beausoleil, 1958
Bretagne, 1965

Source: Lartigue – Life in Color (Martine D’Astier, Martine Ravache) 

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