In America, Jacques Henri Lartigue’s claim to fame was that he was replaced from the cover of Life magazine by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.* However, in the wider world, Lartigue was probably the symbol of the transformation of photography into an affordable family pastime. The greatest of the earliest amateurs, he showed how a mundane scene can be transformed into a magnificent image.
He started with photographs of family games and childhood experiences, later moving onto the beginnings of aviation and cars and the women of the Bois de Boulogne. Without even realising it, he became the father of “modern” photography. One of his favourite subjects was the motorcar, which he photographed as early as 1910, in the above photo of a two-wheeled bobsleigh taking a turn at 60 km/h.
But when he saw the picture he took on that 26th January 1912, the eighteen-year old was disappointed. The number six car is only half in the frame, the background smudged and strangely distended. He put the photo away and forgot about it until September 1954, when the French photography magazine “Points de vue – Images du monde” published “In the heroic times of the motorcar”. Of all photographs of car races taken by Lartigue, the above photo stood out. Automobile Delage, taken at the French Grand Prix in 1912, as someone pointed out, “conveys a remarkable impression of velocity–the wheels of the speeding car are elliptical and tilted forward, their spokes blurred with motion, and the road itself is but a streak of grey”. It showed “all the rush, the energy, the velocity that were so important during the years … in which racing drivers are popular heroes, new speech records are established and broken every week,” wrote Philip Blom in The Vertigo Years.
The picture, ultimately one of Lartigue’s most famous images, transformed him overnight from a painter with photography hobby into “France’s leading amateur photographer” — as the magazine called it. He retired as a society photographer, taking the official portrait for President Giscard d’Estaing. For someone whose photo career began at the age of six — with his father’s camera — in 1900,the title of his firsbook, a journal he kept throughout his life was especially fitting: Diary of A Century.
* Actually, this greatly helped his fame, for many more people bought that issue of Life magazine.