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GRAND PRIX OF THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF FRANCE, JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE
In this essay, the photographic work of Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) will be discussed in relationship to history, his other photographic works, and with a critical examination of the photograph’s aesthetic value.. On June 26, 1912, Jacques Henri Lartigue took a photograph of a Delage race car zooming past out of the frame at the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France in Dieppe. Lartigue was eighteen years old when he took this photograph. It is a sunny day on the racetrack and a young, wealthy teenager named Jacques has taken it upon himself to document this June Summer day. The name of the photograph, a gelatin silver print, is Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, Course at Dieppe.
The car, marked number six, is halfway out of the frame. Looking at the image, it seems as if the car is about to leap out of the frame. It is instantly possible to feel the excitement of the moment. Everything is whirring by at a dizzying pace. The car is going so fast that the wheels appear distorted and out of joint. The chassis of the car looks like a speeding bullet with four awkward wheels poking out from the sides. The center spoke of the turning wheel is colored with a shock of white color. The car is going so fast that the camera was unable to capture the spokes of the wheel clearly. Two spare tires sit on the back of the car. A reflector light is visible behind the drivers. The driver is a hulky man, and his passenger and he wear racing gear. The driver firmly has both hands clasped around the steering wheel, and he is certainly holding on very tight. The steering wheel is a demonstrative circle. The car is a convertible. It speeds along on the race track so fast that Lartigue has barely enough time to take the picture.
There are three spectators visible in the image, and perhaps one spectator at the edge of the frame. The two spectators on the right of the frame are walking away from the speeding car. It appears to be a man and a woman, and they both wear hats. The single spectator standing alone and facing the camera is probably not a spectator at all, but a technician or an attendant. His hat looks official, and his pose seems official. The outline of the figures is blurry, and it is not possible to clearly delineate the features of their face. What appears to be slender trees are slanted against the sky. Nothing is exactly straight. All the objects seem to lunge left or right. Nothing is centered, except the roadway. The grassy countryside is a hazy blur on the side of the road. The roadway appears to be sleek as it is obviously a racetrack.
It is interesting to compare Lartigue’s photograph of the racecar with three other images: Le jour des drags aux courses à Auteuil , 1911; Maiden flight of the Archdeacon with Gabriel Voisin, attained distance: 25m, Merlimont, 1904 and Avenue des Acacias, Paris, 1911. In the first image, three women stand at the edge of the racetrack to watch the competition. Lartigue was a year younger, about seventeen years old when he took this photograph. The women are elegantly dressed. They wear extravagant hats, and the central woman in the frame clasps a handbag. They are obviously enjoying the show as evidenced by their smiles. They stand at attention as if acting as lady guardians. This photograph depicts no racecars. However, it is certain the ladies are watching the races at the track. This 1911 image, taken a year before the photograph of the Delage, is a portrait and it was also taken when Lartigue was about seventeen years old. It is not blurry, nor is it the “captured motion” effect of the camera seizing motion in a still frame.
Similarly, the photograph of the woman walking her two dogs on the Avenue des Acacias in Paris, also taken in 1911, marries Lartigue’s fascination with upper class women dressed in elegant attire with his love of automobiles. This image has both of Lartigue’s obsession: cars and women. Interestingly, in this image two modes of transportation are readily visible. In the lefthand side of the frame, an automobile drives on the road. However, in front of the car is a horse drawn carriage. In the middle is the woman with her dogs, and her shadow is cast on the street by the rays of the sun. The woman is confident in her dress and gait, gaily walking her dogs amidst what appears to be afternoon traffic in Paris.
In the 1904 photography of an airplane, we see an early example of Lartigue’s fascination with capturing a moment as it takes place. It is actually an amazing photograph not only for capturing the magic of flight but the sheer fact that Lartigue was only about ten years old when he took this photograph! It is an image of a little boy fascinated with men’s toys. All three photographs have a documentary feel. Lartigue is capturing life as he experiences it and with the “Maiden Flight” photograph we see aviation at one of its earliest moments. Certainly, Lartigue was fascinated with technology as well as the people who were associated with cars and with flight.
The social milieu of Paris, France, before the outbreak of the First World War, as seen through the lens of Lartigue’s camera is one of upper-class leisure and play. Lartigue is having fun with his camera, and he is showing the viewer a privileged life. Ladies stand by the side of the racetrack. Dogs are walked and pampered. It is not the normal attire of everyday Parisiens. Lartigue is similar to another artist famous during this period: Marcel Proust. Proust also captured the life of bourgeois Parisians. While Lartigue captured their life with the alacrity of the photographic image, Proust captured them in words: “ [F]rom morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”
Lartigue was in love with the leisure class and he was also in love with technology in the same a little boy is in love with his toys. The photograph of the Delage running the track, did not win that day, although, it was considered a favorite. It was the Peugot that won first place. It must have been fantastic to watch a car speeding by at thirty-five miles per hour (although today this speed seems slow!). In a diary he kept during this time, Lartigue wrote “All the pretty or curious things give me so much pleasure. Thanks to photography I can hold them.” Lartigue’s love for photography was a gift to him from his father, who gave him a camera when he was about seven or eight years old. Lartigue, in a photograph taken by his father, depicts he and his brother astride the Eiffel Tower, as it were an erector “grown large.”
In conclusion, what was perhaps just a quick snap of the shutter of a camera, has made Jacques-Henri Lartigue one of the Twentieth Century’s most famous photographers. Perhaps today we take his photographs for granted. For what Lartigue was doing in the first decade of the twentieth century people do almost without thinking today. They take photographs of the life as it is lived around them.
However, with Lartigue’s photographs the people are not attuned to the camera. They are living their life, and seldom do they appear to be aware that they are being photographed. Lartigue is certainly at the moment and enjoying life, and it is bittersweet that the joy of his early 1910s photographs prefaces a painful chapter in European history: the outbreak of the First World War. Lartigue’s photographs are a record of history, of a time when photography was just beginning to take on prominence in the art world. It is interesting that Lartigue was not made famous until many decades later. When he was taking these photographs discussed in this essay, he was an amateur photographer. It is only in retrospect that people look at these images and take note of the work of a great master artist.
Jacques Henri Lartigue-, Le jour des drags aux courses à Auteuil, 1911
Maiden flight of the Archdeacon with Gabriel Voisin, attained distance: 25m, Merlimont, 1904
Avenue des Acacias, Paris, 1911
“Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Maiden flight of the Archdeacon with Gabriel Voisin, attained
distance: 25m, Merlimont, (April 3rd 1904).” Berinson.de. Accessed April 08, 2015.
“Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Avenue des Acacias, Paris (1911).” MoMA.org. Accessed April 08,
"Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, Course at Dieppe
(1912)." MoMA.org. Accessed April 08, 2015.
“Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Paris. Le jour des "Drags" aux courses d'Auteuil.”
(1911). National Gallery of Australia. Accessed April 08, 2015.
"Le Magazine." Caroline Hancock : « Et Toc ! Clac ! Pan ! La photographie Selon Jacques Henri
Lartigue » ◊ Jeu De Paume /. Accessed April 08, 2015.
Lewis, Richard, and Susan I. Lewis. 2007. The power of art. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Mavor, Carol. 2007. Reading boyishly: Roland Barthes, J.M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartigue,
Marcel Proust, and D.W. Winnicott. Durham: Duke University Press.
Proust, Marcel. 1981. Remembrance of things past. London: Chatto & Windus.
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