Lartigue: John Banville on the genius photographer the world nearly missed

Book review: Louise Baring’s delightful account captures Frenchman’s relentless joie de vivre

Jacques Henri Lartigue in his bath with his hydro-glider model (shutter released by Marie Lartigue), 40 rue Cortambert, 1904. Photograph: Jacques Henri Lartigue © 2020 Ministère de la Culture – France/AAJ HL

Jacques Henri Lartigue in his bath with his hydro-glider model (shutter released by Marie Lartigue), 40 rue Cortambert, 1904. Photograph: Jacques Henri Lartigue © 2020 Ministère de la Culture – France/AAJ HL

Jacques Henri Lartigue was one of the greatest photographic artists of the 20th century, but we very nearly missed him. It was not until 1963, when he was about to turn 70, that the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on his first major exhibition. It was a sensation, as they say; here was a collection of masterworks dating back to the turn of the century that for decades had been known only to a handful of people, but that now were given to the world. “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,”’ Richard Avedon said of the MoMA show.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. In the same way that Henri Cartier-Bresson prized his own never-more-than-mediocre drawings over his photography, so Lartigue liked to think of himself as a painter who amused himself by taking amateur photographs. He had the dilettante’s disdain for careerism – “I detest those who become painters [and photographers too, no doubt] as one does a telegrapher or a baker”– and fostered the notion of himself as the “primitive” that John Szarkowski, the curator who put on the 1963 MoMA show, had taken him to be.

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