Behind the scenes

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Helen Luckett introduces Jacques Henri Lartigue, whose photographs have a directness that makes them strikingly modern

It is a hot day in August, nearly 80 years ago. A woman named Bibi is sitting on the beach, shaded from the sun by a huge parasol. A thin film of water over the sand mirrors her sunshade, the ripples making the reflection shimmer like silk. The reflection is sharp and clear where it meets the spoked rim of the parasol, shuddering and dissolving into a jellyfish-like transparency further down the photograph.

Bibi in her stripy bathing costume is reflected too, and under - or perhaps it is on top of - these reflections there are paler shadows. In the background there are more stripes: along the shoreline and on the chalet beyond, while an unexplained diagonal shoots down from the top right-hand corner, pointing at Bibi's head.

It only takes two glances, one at the picture and another at the caption, to see all this. But though Bibi is the centre of the photo, the longer you look at this image, it seems less like a portrait of a person and more like an arrangement of abstract patterns; of lines, angles, curves, cones, circles within circles, refraction and mutation.

This is a fragment of a second of a day a lifetime ago and though it now seems timeless and fixed, it had a before and an after. You can imagine the photographer shouting, "Bibi, sit down quickly - just there, hold your parasol just so ... Voil...!"

The shutter clicks and Bibi gets up, brushes the sand off her bottom and wanders towards the horizon in search of the sea. But this picture is not an isolated image, it forms part of a sequence of photos, carefully arranged and mounted in an album. If you had the album in front of you, you could turn back the pages and find the beginning of the story: the day when the photographer, Jacques Henri Lartigue, leaves Paris with his wife Bibi and son Dani for their summer holidays.

They are travelling in a little open sports car, with a long shiny bonnet and hardly any room for the passengers. Lartigue takes a photo of them all outside their house before they set off, then again when they stop for lunch, and again in the evening, sitting in a garden with a wind-up gramophone just visible in the twilight.

The journey down to the far south-west of France takes several days.

Luckily, it never seems to rain. When they arrive at Hendaye, they go fishing for crabs and climbing on the rocks. There are fireworks. One day there is a storm, with enormous waves crashing on the jetty. But most of the time is spent playing games on the beach with friends. There are several pages of pictures of Bibi with her parasol. The sunshade is positioned first one way and then another. Bibi takes on slightly different poses. There are distance shots and close-ups. And finally, the photographs are mounted in various ways, so that there are pages of photos of differing sizes, with long, thin rectangles, wider rectangles, and circles. Each page looks quite distinct, and has its own visual interest. All the photographs - 13 pictures on three pages - are studies of shadows and reflections. All are in black and white.

When Lartigue composed these pictures he had been taking photographs, thousands of them, for more than a quarter of a century, since he was a child of six in 1901. All this time he had considered photography to be a "magical game" and he himself just an amateur photographer. But from his earliest photographs he had shown an unerring instinct for seizing the fleeting moment in images of such arresting clarity that they do not seem like "old" photos at all. They retain a freshness and directness that makes them seem extraordinarily modern.

His albums - 130 all told - are a record of a remarkable life lived over eight decades of the 20th century. Lartigue saw these albums as a visual journal, carefully arranging and editing them as if they were a film.

Focusing on what was new, extraordinary, beautiful, farcical or bizarre, his aim was simply to preserve happiness; he saw no need to include any reflection of the dark and terrible events of the times he lived through.

In 1963, when Lartigue's first photographs, taken 50 years earlier, were eventually "discovered" by the art world, they were compared with what was most modern and cutting-edge in contemporary photography. In 2004, his life's work of photographs and albums, begun more than 100 years ago, continues to delight, surprise and inspire.

Jacques Henri Lartigue


Jacques Henri Lartigue took his first photographs at the age of six.

Introduced to photography by his father, an enthusiastic amateur who taught him the rudiments of the craft, Lartigue had an unusually sure eye and a brilliant sense of timing. He turned to painting, which he believed to be his true vocation, and did not consider himself as a photographer until late in life. He was nearly 70 when he first achieved world-wide fame.

* Jacques Henri Lartigue: Photographs 1901-1986 at the Hayward Gallery, London, from June 24 to September 5. The exhibition, organised by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris, and the Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, is the first major showing in Britain of the work of this photographer and includes 99 albums and a selection of stereoscopic photographs and framed prints.

Group bookings and details Tel: 0870 165 6000.

Tickets include admission to About Face: Photography and the Death of the Portrait, in the upstairs galleries.

* Further reading: Lartigue: Album of a Century Edited by Quentin Bajac and Martine D'Astier Thames and Hudson, pound;35.

Hardback exhibition catalogue out June 28.

The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History By Graham Clarke Oxford University Press, pound;11.99.

Helen Luckett is education officer at the Hayward Gallery.

Lesson ideas

Art and design

KS 1-2 Take photographs of a particular event or one particular day. As a class work out what it is that you want to record, then edit the pictures so they tell this story and, at the same time, make interesting images. Talk about why some photographs should be discarded and why others need to be cropped: would they be better if this or that bit was cut out?

KS3 Lartigue's photographs almost always involve movement of one kind or another, even when they are posed. Think about a range of subjects which could include stillness and motion. Choose one, then photograph it from different angles, distances and viewpoints. Would the images look better enlarged or reduced?

KS4 Look at Lartigue's early photographs taken around 1909-1912. How do they differ from this photograph of Bibi, taken in 1927? Lartigue was 15 in 1909. What do you think he might have photographed if he were a teenager now, and how might he use new technology?

KS5 Compare Lartigue's photographs from the 1920s and 1930s with images from the same period by other photographers. Is Lartigue a "modernist"? A younger photographer, Richard Avedon, described Lartigue's photographs as being "almost palpable". What does this mean, and is it true?

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