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Lartigue

Text from Richard Avedon, "He has shown us laughter" (preface to an out of print catalog from a Japanese exhibition of Lartigue's work)

"Photography has always reminded me of the second child ... trying to prove itself. The fact that it wasn't really considered an art ... that it was considered a craft ... has trapped almost every serious photographer. Made them fall for some formalized ideal of ... what was beautiful. Textures. Shadows. Pears as asses and sand dunes as breasts. Photographs of-sculpture by moonlight. It has brought them to ... great themes. Hunger. War. "The Human Condition." Things photography could do that painting couldn't. It's always been in relation to the older brother ... Nadar put his sitters in clamps and arranged the folds of their clothes. Steichen made portraits of world-famous men as if they were ... already in marble. High-speed film was available since the turn of the century but for years it was only used in sports photography ... as if there were some tacit agreement among photographers to remain within the provinces of painting in the hope of assuring their position as artists. I think Jacques Henri Lartigue is the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the short ... embarrassing history of that so-called art. While his predecessors and contemporaries were creating and serving traditions he did what no photographer has done before or since. He photographed his own life. It was as if he knew instinctively and from the very beginning that the real secrets lay in small things. And it was a kind of wisdom-so much deeper than training and so often perverted by it-that he never lost. There is almost no one in this book who isn't a friend ... no moment that wasn't private one.

"Lartigue never exhibited his pictures until 1962. He never thought of himself as a photographer. It was just something he did every day ... every day for seventy years. Out of love of it. And every day his eye refined and his skill with a camera grew. He was an amateur ... never burdened by ambition or the need to be a serious person.

"But it would be a great mistake to credit his artistry merely to the fact that he was not corrupted by professionalism. Or to say that his work is the product of accident ... that his photographs are extraordinary because the people around him were. Or the time in which he lived. Hundreds of children with similar backgrounds were given cameras in those days-but they never became Lartigues. And accidents are capricious. They just don't happen that often. They can't produce a single body of work so consistently brilliant. Lartigue is not a reporter and his best photographs are not those gained by chance.

"From the earliest possible age Lartigue kept a little diary. At the top of each page there was always a drawing of the sun or a cloud ... and some initials: T.B., B., T.T.B. They stood for Trés beau. Beau. Trés Ns beau ... That was the weather. It was always a good day. It almost never rained. Ever ... And then there would be a quick description of what he did that day. Who visited the house. Where they went . . . And half the page devoted to drawings of what he'd photographed, because the developing was a very risky process and often the pictures didn't come out. So, afraid that he might never see the pictures that he'd taken, he would draw from memory what he'd photographed. And in the diaries, which went on for many years, you can see the photographs that have since become masterpieces ... drawn. And the miracle of these little drawings is that he had captured exactly the way a scarf had been caught by the wind the moment he clicked the shutter. And they are accurate. Absolutely accurate. Which means a perfect memory ... and a complete sense of what he'd wanted. And this obsessiveness went on every year of his life. The files. The scrapbooks. They're all over the apartment. The perfection of those files. In a second, he can find any glass negative from ... 1911 -neatly kept in perfect condition.

"And the events he photographs ... so many of them are the result of his own invention. He creates them. For example, I had invited him to lunch at my studio one day ... he and his wife, Florette. It was a bit of an occasion ... so we had special food. A little French ... And he was in full form. Laughing. Telling stories. And suddenly, at the peak of his spirits, he reached over for a carrot and toasted us all with it. I took another carrot and toasted him back. And as I raised my hand, his camera came out and ... click. A picture of me toasting everyone with a carrot!

"And that's the secret. Bichonnade didn't just jump down the stairs like that on her way to ... the Métro. It was Lartigue who made her do that. And he was ten years old at the time ... And his suggestions are rarely direct. They're oblique. They come from impulses, not ideas. I'm sure he didn't say, "Bichonnade, jump down the steps." I'm sure he leaped down the steps himself and she followed him but by the time she did, he was there with his camera ... Obviously Simone did not go into the Bois on her seventy-fifth birthday and leap around. Nor did the entire family just happen to climb into bed together. He made those pictures happen. His photographs are so ... palpable. They imply things that happened before and after the photographs were taken. They remind us of what we were never there to know ... The uncles fighting - probably my favorite photograph in the entire book. There are two uncles. They're sitting on a pole that's extended over the pool ... and they're having a pillow fight. In the distance is a woman. We don't know who she is. And somehow ... from the angle of the photograph ... it seems to have been taken by a little boy who's been told to take his nap ... and he's looked out of the window because he's heard laughter ... that grownup laughter. I mean I think uncles are the most important thing you can have ... as a child. And the quality the print has taken on over the years ... with the edges sort of burnt away. If there can be a sort of physical quality of memory ... a physicalization of memory. It's like a photograph in a dream ... And what did that fight mean ? Was it really all in fun? And which uncle did the woman love?

"I feel that's how it was all supposed to be ... Fathers who gave their sons secret gardens. Brothers who flew airplanes ... built them and flew them ... and jumped off walls with umbrellas ... and wives who posed for their wedding portraits on the toilet. It's just staggering how lost that all is ... to the whole world. Lartigue has shown us a laughter that is past and the laughter we have traded it for. He has shown us leisure as an adventure and as an indulgence and made us know the full impact of what is lost."


 


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