This exhibition at MEP divides Lartigue’s colour photography into two sections. In the first part are prints and stereoscopes from 1912 to 1927, when he was experimenting with the autochrome colour process. The show then leaps two decades – when Lartigue concentrated on black-and-white – to a new body of work starting in 1949.
Autochrome gave a grainy effect, like Pointillism, which Lartigue as a painter was obviously comfortable with. He had a gift for composition, usually isolating a small figure, simply dressed, as the still point in a landscape. His first wife, Bibi, was his regular model (here, Bibi à l’île de Saint-Honorat, Cannes, 1927, and Bibi au restaurant d’Eden Roc, Cap Antibes, 1920). Her collection of hats serves as little punctuation points in Lartigue’s early oeuvre.
In themselves these are delightful. But it’s the later work that really dazzles. After the War, Lartigue started using Ektachrome, which he shot with his square-format Rolleiflex (he would have been a wow on Instagram.) By now he was on to his third wife, the lovely Florette Ormea, 27 years his junior, with whom he travelled France and Italy, to Cuba and the US, photographing famous friends, like Picasso, Jacqueline, and Jean Cocteau at a bullfight at Vallauris (1955), and Marie Bailey, née Helvin, skinny-dipping at Cap d’Antibes in 1977.
Lartigue is known as “the photographer of happiness” and adding colour to his exuberant subjects and dashing compositions only enhances the effect. Life wasn’t always good – the death of his baby daughter (with Bibi), divorces, the loss of the family home all took their toll. But Lartigue saw beauty all around him, and recorded it with fierce passion: “Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true.” All his life he kept diaries, photo albums (beautifully put together), and notes about where he was, what he did, and what the weather was like, and pages from these are included in the exhibition.
Florette became his greatest inspiration, and he shot her again and again: dressed in yellow with a basket of corncobs, or dappled by shadows in red and blue, posing for a trompe l’oeil manicure picture with a magazine cover, or simply sitting in a field with one of his own paintings in progress.
This is a wonderful, life-affirming exhibition, made all the more impressive by the fact that Lartigue was into retirement age, and still technically an amateur, by the time he produced this body of work. The work itself is joyous, but the attitude that comes through it is truly inspiring.
Lartigue: La Vie en Couleurs, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, until August 23, 2015
© Fiona Hayes 2015