Sometime around 1970 I shared an elevator with an elderly silver-haired, dapper, twinkle-eyed, Frenchman. We exchanged greetings. We were both on our way to a lecture at the National Gallery in London. He was in fact the guest lecturer and his name was Jacques Henri Lartigue. He had come to prominence when a spread of his photographs had been published in Life magazine in 1963. At the age of 76, he was just reaching the peak of his career as a photographer. Richard Avedon had described him as “…the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the history of photography”.
For the next hour or two this modest man charmed the audience, showed his pictures and talked about his life. Using a high quality Uher cassette recorder I taped his presentation and back in Australia used quotes from it when a photo magazine asked me to review his book, Diary of a Century. This was an edited selection of pictures from the astonishing 120 large format photo albums he had kept as a visual diary. Sadly the tape of that event no longer exists. I lent it to a director of the Australian Centre for Photography, where I lectured for many years, and it was stolen along with his car.
However, some of Lartigue’s comments from that lecture still survive in my review, which appeared in Camera Graphics Australia (Volume one-Number four, March 1972).
“In order to to have talent, one must be happy. In order to be happy, one must have earned happiness and it does not come without effort. By happiness I do not mean to be rich or spoilt, I mean, to possess a joy of living.”
“In order to be happy, I have my own formula. It is this: never, never be lazy. Eat well and that does not mean eat a lot. Sleep well, and in order to sleep well trake much exercise. Know how to breathe good air. Enjoy silence…this does not prevent one from listening to good music, but one must know the value of silence. Love God, and open one’s ears to his suggestions, which although they are often very quiet are there all the same.”
Questioned on technique he replied that he used neither rangefinder nor exposure meter. “I am able to estimate distance and exposure very accurately from experience”, adding with a grin, “But then you only see the successful pictures. there were very many that were unsuccessful”.
“Sometimes with the inadequate cameras and the very slow plates of the time, I would make my pictures and then pray very hard to God that He would make a miracle happen. I would go home and develop my plates and find that they were no good. In the end, the miracle took seventy years to happen; since it is these bad photographs that hardly came out that are regarded as the most beautiful of my collection”.
Asked whether he thought photography had advanced or progressed since he was a young boy, he replied: “It is not a matter of progressing, it is a question of the times changing and you reflect the time you live in. That is all.”
Whenever I revisit Lartigue’s pictures, I take away two very important reminders. The most important is the that the act of taking a photograph can be pleasurable and spontaneous. His pictures of family and friends also remind me that you don’t need exotic subjects or locations to make great pictures; good pictures can happen wherever you are and with whoever is close to you.
If you’ve never heard of Jacques Henri Lartigue, I recommend his work to you. Seek it out if you want to know the joy that can be found in taking photographs. If you know and love his pictures as I do, I suggest you revisit his pictures often. They will refresh your spirit and your eye…
As Richard Avedon wrote in the afterword to Diary of a Century, “…he did what no other photographer has done before or since. He photographed his own life. It was as if he knew instinctively and from the very beginning that the real secret lay in small things…There is almost no one in this book who isn’t a friend…no moment that wasn’t a private one.”