06/13/02
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Boy with a Camera
    by John Cech

It's the birthday today of one of the world's great photographers, Jacques-Henri Lartigue. He was, most certainly, the world's greatest child photographer. Lartigue was born in Paris in 1894, the second son of a prosperous family. Jacques-Henri's father was himself a very accomplished amateur phographer, as well as a fan of, and a participant in, such sports of the day as aviating, automobile racing, hot-air ballooning, and giant kite flying. He eagerly passed on to his sons these enthusiasms for the new, the novel, and the inventive that were occurring all around them in what has beeen called the belle epoque -- the "beautiful time" -- in France in the early part of the twentieth century.

Jacques-Henri learned from his father how to load the cumbersome, expensive Gaumont camera with the glass plates on which the pictures would later be developed. He knew how to duck his head under the black cloth at the back of the camera, how to focus the upside-down image that appeared there. Some of his first pictures, taken when he was about seven, are carefully posed, with everyone standing perfectly still. But he soon grew tired of these. Jacques-Henri liked things that were in motion -- a ball in the air; an uncle diving into the water; a glider clearing the edge of a sand dune at the beach; his cousin levitating above the steps of their Paris home; his brother, Zissou, bobbing in the water, dressed in a tweed suit, in an inner tube he invented that had rubber legs to keep the floater dry while he paddled along the river. Jacques-Henri took thousands of pictures by the time he was a teenager, many of which have become photographic classics, like the one he took at one of the first Grand Prixes, of a Delage racer speeding by in a blurr.

From the time he was a boy, Lartigue instinctively knew the sought-after secret of photography: where to stand. And he knew perfectly, without ever having to be told, the answer to the second sublime secret: when to click the shutter. "I know that many, many things are going to ask me to have their pictures taken and I will take them all," Lartigue said when he began his life-long love of photography. And he did. He took nearly a quarter of a million pictures, and was still taking them when he died in his 90s. Today he is considered a national treasure in France. But he is also one of the world's treasures and one of those spirits who preside over the genius of childhood.

Copyright 2002, John Cech

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