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A Boy, A Camera, An Era
    by John Cech

This past week , the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida opened a new exhibition of early pictures taken by one of the world's amazing photographers, Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Most certainly he was 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 wouldlater 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. His first picture, taken when he was seven, is carefully posed, with he family standing perfectly still. But that was one of the few standard pictures he would take. 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 Prix races, of a Delage racer speeding by in a blurr. From the time he was a boy, Lartigue instinctively knew that most 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 at the beginning of 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.

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Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."