J-H Lartigue at the Photographers’ Gallery

Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) considered himself to be a painter not a photographer. Although from an early age he thought photography to be “a magic thing” and “nothing will ever be as much fun”, the photos he made were always personal. He moved in well-to-do French society circles and his photos amount to a personal documentation of this ‘set’ for much of the twentieth century, however the current exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery (ends 5 January 2014) focuses on his relationship with his first wife Madelaine Messager, nicknamed Bibi.

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Ubu and Bibi sur la route entre Lourdes et Pau.1925 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

JHL met Bibi in 1918. Initially he shied away from marriage, preferring his life of perpetual holiday and flirtation supported by the family’s fortune. He gradually fell more deeply in love and they married in 1919. The photographs from the period 1918-1923 are generally happy, sun-lit scenes with Bibi featuring centre-stage, though there is a very portentous image taken in London:

Bibi in London.  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. One book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers' Gallery

Bibi in London. © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. The Aperture History of Photography book dates this image as 1919 however it is dated as 1926 at the Photographers’ Gallery

They had a son, Dany, in 1921 and a daughter in 1924 but tragically she died after only a few months. This event seems to have been the start of a widening chasm between JHL and Bibi: his diary does not give the impression of a problem with the marriage but he does fall in love with another woman with whom he has an affair. Bibi relies on her father for emotional support rather than her husband. The images show Bibi being increasingly marginalised in JHL’s life: she may be a small detail in a larger image, relegated to the background or even out of focus:

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928  © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Bibi in Marseilles, 1928 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Although there are many clues to their deteriorating relationship in the photographs, JHL’s diaries suggest that he is unaware of the problem. It is only in 1930 and following the death of Bibi’s father, that she leaves him and he writes “My broken heart only wishes her well”.

Photographically speaking Lartigue functioned at an intuitive level, reacting without conscious thought to every circumstance and scene before him. His was a natural, unforced talent that was only recognised late in his life. He didn’t have much time for analysis, saying “To talk about photos rather than making them seems idiotic to me.” So it’s just as well he isn’t able to read this blog then!

This exhibition is sensitively curated and thoughtfully displayed: well done to the Photographers’ Gallery for fitting it in to their schedule!

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