In The Moment: An Interview with VA Museum of Fine Arts’ Jeffrey Allison on Photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue

The photo just jumped out at me. It had a joyful, playful performing arts feeling. But it was a photograph from a century ago by an artist I did not know. And I wanted to know more. So with a bit of an investigation I learned lots, and now to share with you. It led to the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton and then the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, VA.

VMFA_Lartigue

The Virginian Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is a state-supported, privately endowed educational institution created for the benefit of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The VMFA collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets art  to enrich lives.

While the Museum is physically located in Richmond, VA, it has partnerships with and serves communities throughout Virginia. It provides the opportunity for VMFA to come those who do not live nearby Richmond where the VMFA is located.

One of the VMFA community partnerships is with the Workhouse Arts Center with regularly scheduled events and lectures held at the Workhouse. An example is an upcoming event focused on French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue [1894-1986]. You can see his work here and here.

Lartigue is a central figure in 20th century photography. He is known for his remarkable images of speeding automobile races, fast planes, and fashionable Parisian women at the turn of the last century and later as a fashion photographer in the 1960’s, according to Jeffrey Allison, Paul Mellon Collection Educator and Statewide Manager at the VMFA. Lartigue had a spread of his photos in Life magazine in the 1963 issue famous for photographs of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. One other performing arts tidbit especially for those interested in contemporary cinema; American film director Wes Anderson is considered a fan of Lartigue’s work.

On December 18, 2014, Allison will be at the Workhouse to explore Lartigue’s career with photographs in an event entitled “An Album of a Century: Photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue.” As I looked at Lartigue’s fashion work, I could picture costume designers gazing  while saying to themselves, “ah-hah!”

This “In the Moment” column is based upon phone and email interviews by DCMTA’s David Siegel with Jeffrey Allison, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. My interest in photography as a visual art has been long standing. A recent Sunday NY Times article about one person’s passion that “transformed the art market” only added to my interests; especially as all arts struggles with the aftermath of the recent recession with its seemingly long-term affect on budgets and donations and audience expectations.

David Siegel: Why is Jacques Henri Lartigue important in the history of photography?

Jeffrey Allison: I think he is important in a number of ways. He mastered the science and art of photography at a remarkably young age. Those early photographs preserved a unique vernacular record of the end of France’s belle époque and the advent of mechanized transportation. He used, the “snapshot camera” which had just been introduced. This allowed him to make the kind of “candid” images he did of family and friends. He also figured out how to make amazing photographs of things in motion from early motor races and flying machines to his own family’s experiments and exuberant play

What are some of the high points of his photographic artistry?

Let’s say that Lartigue had three distinct periods. The first, from age 8 when he was given his first camera through his adolescence when the majority of his most famous photographs were made. The second, covering his young adulthood. These photographs of his three wives, mostly importantly, his first wife, Bibi, and countless models, many shot in Biarritz and on the Riviera, are striking in their elegance and subtle design elements. The third began in 1962, when his work was introduces to Curator of Photography at MOMA, John Szwarkoski. The following year, Lartique had a one man show at MOMA and spent the rest of his life famous for his early photographs but also for creating new images of 60’s icons such as Twiggy and in 1974, French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Why do you think we are still fascinated by the photographic works of Lartigue?

Jeffrey Allison.
Jeffrey Allison.

Perhaps it is the fascination with the wonderful characters doing crazy things in his early photographs. They seem to radiate innocence and an excitement about all the things that the new 20th century will offer. Those images offer a world that, while it never really quite existed in the  way they suggest, still seems like a lost moment we all wish to return to. Perhaps it is because his ability to capture cars and planes, etc. is still amazing after all these years. And, perhaps it is simply the fact that they are quite unique within the history of photography and have a slightly illusive quality like a dream just partially remembered. The man himself seen through the photographs he made offers an infectious joy that is hard not to love.

What technical or artistic lessons might current photographers learn from Lartigue?

When you first look at Lartigue’s photographs, it is easy to assume that he truly was the amateur he claimed to be, simply snapping pictures of the life swirling around him. But, he was a perfectionist. He carefully measured distance, light, depth of field and composed the photographs so that they appear much more candid than they really are. He made these photographs rather than “taking pictures.”

Do you think that Lartigue’s photographic work “speaks” to younger viewers and photographers who are Millienials? If so, why?

Lartigue’s work speaks to every generation. I think you are asking how can these images made a 100 years ago still be interesting to people today. Young viewers are as captivated as anyone by the magic in the images. Young photographers still marvel at Lartigue’s photographs of things in motion. So many photographers and filmmakers have borrowed from his photographs that they are current currency in our pop culture. From contemporary fashion shoots to the films of Wes Anderson, Lartigue is around his.

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Jacques Henri Lartigue self portrait 1981.
Jacques Henri Lartigue self portrait 1981.

An Album of a Century: Photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue presented by Jeffrey Allison, the Paul Mellon Collection Educator and Statewide Manager at the VMFA is Thursday,  December 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm. at the Workhouse Arts Center- 9518 Workhouse Way, Venue W-16, Vulcan Muse, in Lorton, VA.Tickets are $10 for General Admission, $5 for Artists at the Workhouse, Friends of the Workhouse, Workhouse Volunteers and Military. Pre-registration requiredCall (703) 584-7900, or visit their website.

This program has been organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and is supported, in part, by the Paul Mellon Endowment and the Jean Stafford Camp Memorial Fund. Additional local support provided by the Hilton Springfield.

Note: The VMFA is under the leadership of Alex Nyerges, Director. As well as writing and lecturing widely on photography, Nyerges has curated such exhibitions as Edward Weston: A Photographer’s Love of Life (2004), a major retrospective that traveled nationally, and In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West (1999), which traveled nationwide.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.