PITTSBURGH — The work of Jacques Henri Lartigue melds today’s concepts of the autobiographical with street, fine art, action, and fashion photography. An exhibition of his work at the Frick Art and Historical Center, Fast Cars and Femme Fatales, intends to draw a parallel between the museum’s namesake family and Lartigue, who was born in France in 1894 to a wealthy family that also had access to the latest technologies and inventions of the time.
The exhibition takes viewers from some of his earliest photos, taken around 1907 with his father’s camera, through the last of the Belle Époque and the two world wars, until about 1958. In chronological order, it shows his sustained interest in technology, airplanes, automobiles, family, women, and fashion. The subject matter is complemented by the Frick Art and Historical Center’s location on the grounds of Henry Clay Frick’s mansion in Pittsburgh’s posh East End neighborhood of Point Breeze. It does not have the same warm, floral air that New York’s Frick Collection always seems to exude, but it does offer the same seclusion and quietness, enhancing Lartigue’s documentary work.
Having been been referenced and reproduced many times in more contemporary contexts, many of Lartigue’s photos look familiar. However, he was not well known in the US until the 1960s, when John Szarkowski, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art, organized a huge exhibition of his work. One notable present-day fan is Wes Anderson, who has alluded to many of Largitue’s images in his films. Steve Zissou, of Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, was named after Lartigue’s brother Maurice, who was nicknamed Zissou. It makes sense that Anderson is enamored with the French photographer’s style — both have a knack for producing work with action-oriented, childlike energy.
For Fast Cars and Femmes Fatales, the first of the Frick’s three main galleries showcases mostly photos of technology, sports, and fashion — records of the experiences that Lartigue’s familial wealth afforded him. They include many images of early biplanes taking off — and some crashing. There are also a lot of snapshots taken from open cars, including from the Hispano-Suiza that Lartigue’s father gave him. Some feature women parading along the streets of Paris and look styled almost as historical parodies of contemporary street style blogs. Action shots of sporting events abound, including tennis matches, sledding, ski jumping, and a motorized snow vehicle with a giant fan behind it that looks like an early snowmobile. What is most striking about these photos is that they are not just of interesting things — records of a period during which technology was rapidly changing lifestyles and everyone’s perception of time and travel — but that Lartigue maintained a recognizable and consistent style throughout. In two-dimensional images, he created three-dimensional stories; the photos feel like moving pictures. Everyone looks happy, even when melancholic, because everyone looks beautiful.
Lartigue’s images slow down a bit in the exhibition’s next two rooms, which feature far fewer fast cars winding down long roads, and more zoomed-in action shots that make for compelling portraiture. This is where the femme fatales come to the forefront, as Lartigue went through a divorce from his first wife Bibi, subsequent affairs, and two more marriages. It’s in these portraits of family friends and lovers that his work anticipates the likes of Richard Avedon.
Many of Lartigue’s greatest images are admittedly more controversial and not featured in this family-focused exhibition. One particularly iconic image omitted is the photo of his first wife Bibi on the toilet, which has been recreated thousands of times over — think Mario Testino’s images of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell on the toilet. Luckily, in the show’s third room there are a few images of Lartigue’s third wife Florette, lying on her back, mostly naked from her torso up and draped with fabric, with vampy nails and lips. The photos of Florette demonstrate Lartigue’s perceptive eye for beauty. In these images, his style comes to the surface, foregrounding how beauty can be perceived as happiness. In this way, his work feels very American, and so it makes sense for it to be on view in an American industrial city, next-door to the Frick’s ostentatious Car and Carriage Museum.
What’s lost in this exhibition are Lartigue’s more genuine portrayals of his so-called femme fatales and his transition from black-and-white to color. All of the images here are in black and white, save two experiments with color using the Autochrome Lumiére in 1921. While focusing on the parallels between Lartigue’s oeuvre, the manufacturing boom, and the Frick family’s industrial wealth, viewers lose sight of what these families’ adventures and wealth ultimately afforded. For Lartigue, it was a lifetime of access to the latest cameras. Ultimately, it’s through the honest and sensual portraits of his lovers, which progressively portrayed sexuality as something picturesque, and in his work in color, that Lartigue is most enduring. In his action shots, he finds a way to make the moments more than transitory and imbues each photograph with a significance that goes beyond the excitement for new things. The beauty of his images, whether it’s of a person or an object, is in how he manages to make even a crashing plane look perfect, opportune, and happy.
Fast Cars and Femmes Fatales: The Photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue continues at the Frick Art and Historical Center (7227 Reynolds Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through May 15.