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Lartigue

Text from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

The word amateur has two meanings. In its classical sense it is the antonym of professional, and refers to those who pursue a problem for love rather than for the rewards the world may offer. In this sense the word often identifies the most sophisticated practitioners in a field - many of photography's greatest names have been amateurs as pure as the crocuses of spring, and many others, though mercenaries during the week, have done their best work on weekends.

The other and more popular meaning of the word identifies one who plays at his work: one not only less than fully competent. but less than wholly serious. (The professional is allowed to be less than competent, but never less than serious.) This second variety of amateur is generally handicapped by ignorance of the craft and the traditions of the medium, and is therefore wholly dependent on his or her native, God-given, unique talent and sensibility. This is almost never enough.

There are, however, rare occasions on which exceptional talen,. the right horoscope, and an unexploited new technique all coincide at a point occupied by one as näive and unprejudiced as a child. In such cases the results can be astonishing.

In 1911 Jacques-Henri Lartigue was not merely as unprejudiced as a child: he was a child. The picture reproduced here was made when Lartigue was fifteen, but it was not one of his early works - by the time he was ten he was making photographs that anticipate the best small-camera work of a generation later.

Lartigue was a privileged child, and he made the best of it. From the subjects of his pictures one would assume that the life of his family was dedicated wholly to the pursuit of amusement: the beach, the racetrack, beautiful women in elegant costumes, heroic motor cars and daredevil drivers, flying machines, and all manner of splendid games - including photography itself. Even if Lartigue had been an ordinary photographer, his document of these things would be precious, but he was in fact a photographer of marvelous talent. He caught memorable images out of the flux of life with the skill and style of a great natural athlete - a visual athlete to whom the best game of all was that of seeing clearly.

Lartigue had no perceptible effect on the development of twentieth-century photography, since his work was virtually unknown until a half-century and more after the best of it had been done. When his work came to light, it seemed to confirm the inevitability of what had happened in photography much later, when more mature and sophisticated photographers came to understand what the child had found by intuition.


 


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