The Life and Loves of Jacques Henri Lartigue

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Les mains de Florette Brie le Neflier, 1961Photography by J.H. Lartigue © Ministère de la Culture France / AAJHL

The beloved French photographer's oft-overlooked work in colour is the subject of an invigorating new exhibition

Jacques Henri Lartigue has one of those life stories which might have been written for cinema. Born in Courbevoie, France, at the tail-end of the 19th century, he cut his teeth photographing friends and family playing outside as a young boy before moving onto shooting sports events in his adolescence, a combination of which made him particularly adept at capturing people in motion. Later, this unique capacity for depicting movement in his images would become his winning hand – nowadays he is fondly remembered for his photographs of airplanes and motorcar races – but in the early days he maintained that paint and palette were his best loves, and strove to make a living as a painter for the best part of his life.

Nonetheless, even when the principal source of Lartigue's income was his painting work, he continued to take pictures and to write a journal about his photography – a document which now provides an invaluable insight into his world. “I have two pairs of eyes," he once said of his dual focus, "one to paint and one to take photographs." In fact, it wasn’t until 1963, at the age of 69, that the image-maker was serendipitously ‘discovered’ for his photography – agent Charles Rado had no sooner laid eyes upon Lartigue’s work (by now an archive of over 100,000 photographs) than he had introduced him to an esteemed curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who swiftly insisted on showing an exhibition of his work – making Lartigue the ultimate in amateur-turned-professionals. He quickly won opportunities to shoot editorials for the most popular fashion magazines of the era.

“I have two pairs of eyes – one to paint and one to take photographs" – Jacques Henri Lartigue

Alongside his professional work, the photographer was endlessly capturing his great loves. Madeleine ‘Bibi’ Messager, who shared a glamorous marriage with the photographer from 1919 until 1930, has herself been the subject of a number of exhibitions, not least an eponymous display at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2013. After the demise of the couple’s marriage came a two-year-long affair with arresting Romanian model Renée Perle – of whom Lartigue once wrote, “Around her, I see a halo of magic” – followed by the equally beautiful Marcelle ‘Coco’ Paolucci. By the time that he married Florette Ormea in Monte Carlo in 1945, Lartigue was 27 years her senior – the couple were to remain together for the next 41 years, until his death. It’s unsurprising, then that the changing faces of his lives and lovers recur throughout his archive, bringing a hint of St Tropez glamour to a southern French landscape, or peeking cheekily out from over a roll-top bathtub.

As the subject of his photographs switched from one captivating woman to another, some motifs remain. Pale, elegant hands tipped with long painted fingernails, for example, reappear throughout the decades that Lartigue was working, as does a fondness for photographs taken with the aid of a reflection. Throughout the years he was working, there remains an unmissable lightness to Lartigue’s work – whether conveyed through a childlike gaze, an incandescent colour study, or a cinematic composition. “It’s marvellous, marvellous!" he once commented of photography. "Nothing will ever be as much fun. I’m going to photograph everything, everything!”

Indeed, only 40% of his monumental 120,000 photograph-strong archive is in colour, but these make up the entirety of Foam’s new exhibition, which is duly entitled Lartigue, Life in Colour. They are joyous, spontaneous and saturated, highlighting the glimmer of the truly magnificent in a length of red patterned wallpaper, or a pair of yellow canvas espadrilles. "I have never taken a picture for any other reason than that at that moment it made me happy to do so," Lartigue once said of his joy-fuelled process. Fortunately for us viewers, it makes us just as happy to admire them.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Life in Colour runs until April 3 at Foam Amsterdam.