On November 29, 1963—just a week after the assassination of President Kennedy, and with the country still in a state of mass mourning—LIFE magazine published a remarkable issue. On the cover, the trademark red slab logo in the left-hand corner was now rendered jet black. Inside, Americans got their very first glimpse at what would later become known as “the Zapruder film” which showed, frame by frightening frame, the final seconds of the beloved president’s life. It ended up being among the best-selling magazines LIFE ever published.
Given the gravity of that particular issue, which more or less marked the end of the Kennedy fairytale that Americans still refer to as Camelot, a reader might have been surprised to find a 10-page story dedicated to the playful photographs that a French boy had taken some 50 years before. But this was precisely how millions of Americans were introduced to the photography of Jacques Henri Lartigue.
By now, Lartigue’s story has become the stuff of amateur-photographer legend, and a new book, simply titled Jacques Henri Lartigue—a sort of photographic biography that covers his career in 90-plus pictures—only bolsters that narrative. Born into a wealthy French family in 1894, Lartigue was given a camera at age 8. He began to document the kind of things that catch a boy’s eye: men falling into swimming pools and jumping over chairs, his brother Zissou’s strange inventions, go-karts spinning out of control.
Lartigue had no formal training with a camera but he clearly had a gift. Even today, it’s hard to look at the images he took at age 17 without a bit of awe. The art and photography critic Jim Lewis once wrote of young Lartigue’s talent: “It’s something altogether astonishing and inexplicable, an expertise beyond experience, and sometimes all you can do is stand back and admire it.”
What exactly was this “it”? Without gimmickry or artifice, without trying too hard—and occasionally without strong framing or sharp focus—Lartigue captured precisely the mood we have in mind when we think, I wish I was a kid again. In an elemental way, his camera found not only moments of simple joy but somehow managed to express the summer days of our collective youth.
A few of the photos in this notebook-size paperback are from Lartigue’s early years—four even appear in the 1963 LIFE story—but most were taken later, when the photographer’s attention had turned from go-karts to, well, women. Lartigue made plenty of beautiful pictures of his three wives (as well as a few mistresses) with the same sort of sun-soaked, carefree feeling his earlier, more boy-ish pictures had. One photo, rich with 1950’s color, shows his third wife Florette near what looks to be beachside dressing rooms; she’s striped by the most delicate shadows. With their glorious reds and blues, and lives-of-the-privileged settings, Lartigue’s color images sometimes feel like spontaneous, wrap-party outtakes from a Slim Aarons shoot.
There are also exuberant images that focus neither on cars nor women: A portrait of Edward Steichen, made in 1966, captures a moment of impish recognition that the bearded old master looks just like the shaggy dog seated beside him. In another, we see a man with a late-era Jim Morrison vibe crossing the street. The sign says “Don’t Walk,” and Lartigue catches the man complying: Both of his feet are in the air, floating, for a split second, above the pavement. Better not blink, these photos tell us, or you might miss life’s rich pageant.
Lartigue led something of a charmed life. The banker father, the seemingly endless funds and loads of leisure time. But the fact that he never wanted for wealth or work also meant that he never had to compromise his vision: He wasn’t beholden to the whims of magazine editors, advertising agencies, or gallery owners. You can see that throughout this photo-biography: “He photographed people jumping from the very beginning of his career to the end. You also see flowers and palm trees,” Marion Perceval told Blind. Perceval, who oversees the thousands of pictures, diary pages, and paintings the photographer donated to France, says, “Even while his practice changed during the century, Lartigue kept his mischievous eyes.”
Whether it was mischievous eyes, his purity of vision, or his Peter Pan existence, Lartigue attracted many a famous fan over the course of his life. John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s hugely influential director of photography, came across Lartigue’s work in 1962, and gave him his first real show the following year, at age 69—until then, his photography was largely unknown. (Lartigue’s pictures, Szarkowski said, were the “the precursor of all that is lively and interesting in the middle of the 20th century.”)
Richard Avedon, too, was an admirer and even had a hand in producing Lartigue’s 1970 book Diary of a Century. He became friends with Picasso, Fellini, and Truffaut, and there are photos of all three in the book. More recently, Wes Anderson has paid homage to Lartigue in his films: The goggle-wearing go-kart rider in Rushmore is straight out of a Lartigue photo, and Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a clear reference to Lartigue’s older brother, Zissou. Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, who just published a terrific photo book of his own pictures, often cites Lartigue as a source of inspiration for finding the wonder in everyday moments: “I love his shots,” says Bridges. “They really let you feel what it was like to be alive in those times.”
It’s tough to argue with Bridges. And so while some might sniff at a photo book that’s not only paperback but can fit in your glove compartment, the book’s portable design—and affordable $13 price tag—is perfectly aligned with the go-see-the-world sensibility that Lartigue captured in his pictures and diary entries. “Will these do as I wish, these color photos?” Lartigue wrote in 1957. “Will they be capable of resurrecting the fragments of reality that I’m seeing, observing, listening to, breathing in, in this moment? In my heart, I know the answer is no, but I resist the impulse ‘to look too deep.’ And so we wander, enjoy ourselves, look around, while my camera does the best it can.”
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of Life magazine and the author of the recently published book, What We Keep.
Jacques Henri Lartigue
128 pages, $12.95/ 9,90€