J.H.LARTIGUE: SNAP JUDGEMENT
Snap judgment: how photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue captured the moment
A photographer who happened to catch the spirit of early 20th-century France, or a visionary who turned the snapshot into art? William Boyd celebrates the work of Lartigue
Sometimes institutions can change the history of art. Often by exclusion - one thinks of the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863 and how it marked the beginning of the end of Beaux Arts classicism and signalled the birth of impressionism. A prevailing taste is suddenly seen as outmoded or moribund and culture decides to take a 180-degree swerve. Or, alternatively, institutions bring about change by giving the imprimatur of acceptance.
The Sensation show at the Royal Academy, London, in 1997, for example, legitimised and enshrined the raw iconoclasm and entrepreneurialism of the Young British Artists - the "market" had barged its way into the museum. In the case of photography, the 1974 Irving Penn show and the 1978 Richard Avedon show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York are seen as legendary in the same way. It can be argued that, as a result of these two exhibitions, the old art-versus-commerce schism that had existed in photography since its invention melted away. Penn and Avedon - both regarded as commercial photographers - were admitted into the pantheon of modern art, and 20th‑ century photography changed forever. The professional photographer could now do anything - and all photographers became potential artists.
Both these exhibitions were curated by John Szarkowski, the highly influential director of photography at MoMA from 1962-1991. But there was another exhibition that Szarkowski put on, just after succeeding Edward Steichen in the role as director, that - I would contend - had far more searching effects on photography and how it was perceived. And that was the Jacques Henri Lartigue show in 1963.
Lartigue (1894-1986) is such a giant of photography today that it's almost impossible to imagine the photographic landscape of the 20th century without him. Yet success and acclaim arrived very late in his life and came about through that exhibition, when Lartigue was almost 70. It wasn't a large show - in no sense a retrospective - and contained under four-dozen photographs from the very beginning of Lartigue's career, from before the first world war to the 1920s. The images that New Yorkers first saw in 1963 are now classics - as famous and iconic as any photographic image can be - but it takes something of a thought experiment to imagine the impact they must have had then.
They were seen initially as pictures of a lost world - Proustian madeleines in the form of black-and-white silver-gelatin prints - but the photographs that Lartigue had been taking in the six decades of his working life had a far more revolutionary effect. Lartigue was "discovered" by the 1963 MoMA show almost as if he were some naif who had been guilelessly pointing his camera here and there and miraculously capturing aspects of the world he was passing through. But Lartigue was no naif. Kevin Moore's excellent monograph, Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist (2004), establishes beyond doubt the sophistication of his photography and the various contemporary photographic traditions he practised in. Lartigue was not sui generis, and he absolutely knew what he was doing, but it wasn't until Szarkowski invited him to show at MoMA that anybody else recognised the fact.