Photo by Jacques-Henri Lartigue.
Studying famous photographers from the past can help you understand the
art of photography, even in this electronic age.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue was the first photographer to show that equipment
comes second to imagination. He was a great individualist taking
photographs of “…everything which pleases me, everything I am keen on,
which delights or amazes me. The rest I let pass.” Famous lensman
Richard Avedon called Lartigue “The most deceptively simple and
penetrating photographer in the history of that art.” I can only agree.
Lartigue was born into an upper middle class family in Courbevoie, near
Paris. He was a child prodigy, who began to photograph in 1901 at age
seven when he received his first camera from his father, who was also an
amateur photographer. This camera was no auto everything point and
shoot, but a large 13 x 18 cm box on a wooden tripod. He is reported as
having said, “Now I will be able to make portraits of everything,
everything. I know very well that many, many things are going to ask me
to have their pictures taken, and I will take them all!” And he did,
keeping a diary illustrated with sketches, in which he recorded the
details of each shot. Just the same as I encourage you all to do today.
The amazing aspect of J-H’s photography was that he was able to show
movement in his images. Remember that no one was there to teach this
young boy, and the cameras, lenses and films were not fast enough to
allow him the luxury of fast shutter speeds, yet he could find that
split instant in time to stop the action. He would capture the subject,
mid-frame, as if posed in mid air waiting for the shutter to click.
Truly remarkable stuff for a young boy. And he was young. J-H was born
in 1894 and has been resident in the Great Darkroom in the Sky since
1986, yet his influence keeps on.
Fortunately for us, he took plenty of photographs, but the enormity of
his collection was not discovered till 1963, by which stage he had over
200,000 photographs catalogued in albums! On his 90th birthday he was
still snapping away and had a major exhibition in London. He also
donated his photograph collection to the French nation. In addition to
his black and white photography, Lartigue made several short films in
1913 and 1914.
What J-H Lartigue gave us, however, in addition to all those photographs
was twofold. The first is called ‘Anticipation’. As a photographer
wanting to record action subjects, you have to anticipate where the
action is, and get yourself ready to record the height of the action. Be
that tennis, soccer or golf, the great action shots are at the zenith.
It is a lot easier now, because these days even compact cameras have
shutter speeds faster than poor old J-H’s first camera, and the top of
the line SLR’s have shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000th of a second
combined with motor drives exposing multiple frames per second. This
makes action photography today much easier than at the turn of the
century. However, there is still the need for “anticipation”, Lartigue’s
The second gift from Lartigue is his diary. He recorded all the
pertinent details so that he could reproduce the same concepts later.
Photography is always a learning process, and the quickest way to learn
is to have records so that you can see what went wrong, or how you got
So let’s have a crack at some “action pix” this week. Take a motorcycle
– it leans into the corner and you can see that it was in motion. Or
even better, riding through a puddle, with the spray coming up from the
wheels. People jumping convey movement too, or skipping rope, water
skiing, running, swimming or diving, like Lartigue’s shot of the tennis
player, or other physical activities. Anticipate the action and get that
I am not saying it is easy, but it is well worth the practice. You can
set the camera on Auto – but anticipate for a great shot.