It’s high summer along the Riviera. A lithe form in a swimsuit and turban (first picture) looks back across her shoulder at an unseen photographer. A trio of girls negotiate rocks (third picture) as an onshore wind whips at their skirts. A slim figure in wide, white palazzo pants (second picture) gazes out to sea as she is captured from behind. You can almost feel the sunshine’s dazzle and warmth in these images taken in the early 20th century by renowned photographer and artist Jacques-Henri Lartigue. And, happily, the opportunity to acquire some of these rare, early prints (from £15,000 to £25,000), along with a number of later prints (£1,250 to £2,000), arises with the opening of a new exhibition (June 8 to August 9) in London at the Michael Hoppen Gallery.
Born into a wealthy family, Lartigue primarily worked as a painter, but had begun taking photographs at the age of six, when his father gave him a camera. Friends, family and sporting events were his principal subjects, and in creating a series of family albums he set about documenting French high society at play. His seemingly simple, yet penetrating, style delivered images with unaffected charm and it was this manner of capturing his subjects that led to acclaim.
However, it was not until he was 69 that Lartigue’s photographs received public recognition. During a trip to New York in 1962 he met Charles Rado, founder of photo agency Rapho, who introduced him to John Szarkowski, the newly appointed director of MoMA’s photography department. Szarkowski was immediately taken with Lartigue’s images and presented the first exhibition of his work at MoMA in 1963. This exhibition, together with publication in Life magazine the same year, secured Lartigue’s reputation. He subsequently worked with fashion magazines and on the sets of filmmakers, including Jacques Feyder, Robert Bresson, François Truffaut and Federico Fellini, many of whom became photographic subjects – along with other creative friends such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Lartigue continued to take photographs and paint until he died in 1986 at the age of 92, leaving an artistic legacy of more than 100,000 photographs and 1,500 odd paintings.
This new exhibition features some of Lartigue’s best-loved images – all estate-numbered without edition. Fourteen of the 46 works are vintage prints, some are from the 1960s and the rest were printed between 1999 and 2016. Gallerist Michael Hoppen co-curated the show with author William Boyd, because, says Hoppen, Boyd has “such great sensitivity towards photography and his most recent book Sweet Caress is all about a photographer. We went through Lartigue’s work together and Boyd found an unusual link that he refers to as ‘snapshot’, which, in its real sense, is what Lartigue did. Many of the people in his photos are completely unaware that Lartigue was photographing them, but in that instant he was so often able to capture something special that revealed something about his subject.”
Boyd adds: “I love the sense of time travel, his bearing witness to a forgotten, vanished, pre-first world war world. His photographs seem so spontaneous, so perfectly snatched. They are at once alluring and moving, beautiful and poignant. The camera is a stop-time device with the moment seized and held forever. Lartigue saw the potential in the snapshot [format] – the instantané as he would have termed it – and elevated it to an artform, thereby changing photography forever. Many of the early photographs taken by my heroine Amory Clay in Sweet Caress [which are reproduced in the novel] are very recognisably Lartiguian. It’s this idea of time being stopped – a split second being frozen forever – that inspired me.”