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TITLE: Diary of a Century
BY: Jacques Henri Lartigue
PUBLISHED: 1970, Viking Press,
New York (this second edition 1978)
SIZE: 270×214 mm

Diary of a Century

This is the second edition of a book on the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) a French painter who will be best remembered for his lightness of touch with a camera.

Lartigue was born into privilege and he photographed his family and friends at play, showing us in Richard Avedon’s words, leisure as an adventure and as an indulgence. This early hardback volume – with photographs selected from Lartigue’s huge archive by Avedon – takes the reader on an endearing personal journey through the first seventy years of the twentieth century.

Given a camera “of polished wood, with a lens extension of green cloth in accordion folds” (didn’t we all love cameras once ?) and a tripod taller than himself, the young Lartigue would climb on a stool to reach the magical inverted image on the ground glass screen. Once there someone draped the black cloth over his head.

But Lartigue quickly tired of static photography and took up a series of cameras with wonderful names like Netel and Spido-Gaumont that he could hand hold and use with plates of sensitive emulsion manufactured for early sports photography.

Lartigue recorded his brother’s attempts to fly in gliders built with the help of the village carpenter, and the first public flight in France (by Gabriel Voisin at Merlimont in 1904) and then when they arrived on the scene, his father’s chauffeur driven cars. The new transport soon led to the family rolling up to the 1912 A.F.C Grand Prix at Dieppe and to the teenage Lartigue’s pictures of dust trailing racing cars, including one of the earliest and best motoring action shots of a Delage “thundering at full speed” the movement exemplified by the shutter-created distortion of the car’s spinning rear wheel bending one way and the standing figures behind stretching the other.

But Lartigue was to turn his focus from racing cars to women where the essence of his inspiration reveals itself as a passion for enchantment “around her I see a halo” he writes of the Romanian beauty Renée Perle “of magic”. He had three wives, and Renée was his lover for two years. Wife number two is omitted, but the others he records with charm and affection. Bibi, wife number one, is photographed sitting on the toilet, the caption explains “Bibi. On our honeymoon.”

In Avedon’s edit the twentieth century rolls by majestically, two World Wars and the death of father-in-law number one André Messenger, the composer, are touched upon lightly in the photographs, although the text, taken from diary entries affords more description.

During the Second World War Lartigue lived in the Vichy south of France and a shortage of film prevented him from taking pictures. On a visit to the capital he observes “Paris looks as if it had fainted”. The occupying Germans talk of the city as though it were a toy.

Come post-war France and life again gravitates to the south from where he laments the arrival of the tourist and the loss of “my beaches and fishermen’s villages and the bumpy dirt roads” but Lartigue finds refuge of a sort amongst the Maharani of Palempur, Count René d’Estainville and the jet set of artists, financiers and film stars.

Picasso appears and Lartigue’s fellow creator of French enchantment Jean Cocteau. Also there is an image of a smiling John F Kennedy sitting next to a beautiful woman in a black swimsuit taken at Cap d’Antibes in 1953. In the foreground Lartigue’s third wife, Florette, looks over her shoulder and smiles at the camera.

Life magazine published this picture ten years later in an edition on the Kennedy assassination. The magazine was featuring Lartigue’s work to accompany the first major exhibition of his photographs which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and curated by John Szarkowski.

It seems that any artist Szarkowski chose to touch turned to gold dust, but perhaps no other photographer in the history of the medium, save Szarkowski’s dining companion Elliot Erwitt, has had the magical ability to make us smile with innocent happiness when viewing a photograph.

The printing is not exceptional, and there is no index to Diary of a Century but an afterword by his friend Richard Avedon written in 1970 reminds the reader – if they hadn’t already realised it – that the real sucess of the book is in sharing in Lartigue’s enchanting delight in the world he lived in which is conveyed through his intrinsic understanding of what photography can achieve. For Avedon Lartigue had a wisdom much deeper than training.

Almost 40 years have passed since Avendon penned his afterword, but it is just as possible today as it was in 1970 to argue that Jacques Henri Lartigue remains one of the most natural and unaffected photographers to have graced the medium.

• In 1979 Jacques Henri Lartigue donated his collection of photographs, diaries and photographic equipment to the French state. The Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue conserves and manages the collection under the supervision of the French Ministry of Culture.

• A few of Lartigue’s photographs can be seen on the Donation’s web site under the title Themes.

Text copyright © 2007 Graham Harrison.

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