Jacques Henri Lartigue: Photographer, by Jacques Henri Lartigue
As is the case with beautiful books of photography like this one , one does not so much read this book as attempt to understand the meaning and significance of the photographs through observation. For those who are not aware, and it is likely that many people will be unaware, Jacques Henri Lartigue was a long-lived French photographer who lived an exciting life full of adventure despite his growing up as a somewhat frail and delicate child, and his photographs were willed to the French state which, as one might expect, put them in a museum and made a fantastic book out of them to share the photographs with a wider and appreciative audience. This is the sort of book one obtains in order to show oneself as a cultured person who appreciates the history of photography and who wants to prompt intriguing discussion among one’s family and houseguests as to the meanings and significance of the photographs of an early and notable amateur photographer. None of these works are historically significant in the sense of say, Matthew Brady and his fellow photographers of the Civil War period, nor are they the sort of photographs that are likely to have won awards during the photographer’s youth when they were taken, but they are certainly intriguing and significant in their own right.
The book as a whole is a large one in terms of its size, clearly the sort of book that belongs on a coffee table rather than on someone’s lap or bookshelf. Inside there are about 120 or so photographs, most of them taken in the 1900’s, 10’s, and 20’s by the photographer during his youth and young adulthood. The photos show some admirable interest in awkwardness and capturing moments of dynamic action in media res. The photographer had a certain small set of interests that he returned to over and over again, including pets, beautiful (?) women–which made him one of the first fashion photographers ever–gliders, race car drivers, and even photographs about the male gaze directed at beautiful women, which gives this book a bit of cultural interest as well. The introduction to the book does a good job at setting the life of the photographer and his work in context, showing him to deliberately avoid unpleasant moments and scenes and to have had a complex history with women that included three marriages. Despite not knowing anything about the photographer beforehand, I thought the book did a good job at introducing him and placing his work in a worthwhile context.
While all of the photos are black and white and only a few of them are exciting–largely because of the excellence of the subject matter–there is still a great deal of interest here in the photos that are chosen. We see shy girls, friendly pets, leering men, women dressing and painting themselves deliberately for flirtation, gliders in operation, race cars maneuvering for position, and even the signage and street life and beaches of France in the bygone days of about a century ago. Those who appreciate beautiful photographs as well as a look back through time to a place and time that may be unfamiliar but which is often viewed as glamorous will find much to enjoy here. This is a cultured work, the work of a cultured man who was a very sensitive observer, if not participant, in the life of his place and time. Given the ease at which people point and shoot photographs in our own day and age, it is worthwhile at times to look back on the past to see how it was done when photography was not nearly so convenient or so ubiquitous, so that we may at least get a sense for how early photographers developed their craft and showed a sensitivity in the way that they framed a shot, little thinking perhaps that their photographs would endure to this day.
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