Man of his times

Lartigue captured the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century France

How will our own age be remembered photographically?

Probably not with the sense of whimsy which photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue remembered his own belle epoque.

The markers of our late 20th century tend to be grim ones: John Kennedy Jr.’s brave baby salute at his father’s funeral; napalmed children in Vietnam; Sept. 11.

Which makes the infectious spirit of wonder and experimentation in Lartigue’s work all the more beguiling. In documenting France in the early 1900s, Lartigue captured an enchanted age of discovery that made the future seem punch drunk with promise rather than a looming storm cloud on the horizon ready to drench our hopes in toxic rain.

The Father of Vernacular Photography at Fay Gold Gallery inspires musings on the nature of our times because Lartigue’s images are so defined by the era in which they were made: the expectant and heady years following the turn of the century.

Lartique was born in 1894 into a well-to-do French family, and his photography was a refined hobby. He worked in relative obscurity until his 1963 retrospective, when Lartigue was 70, at the Museum of Modern Art.

There are two distinct worlds on view in the show. One perspective is of the socially correct promenades of high society on Paris streets. There is an image of an early metrosexual in waxed mustache dressed from head to toe in Tom Wolfe white and one of wealthy dames decked out in fur and velvet finery, their little doggies-as-accessories, suggesting some turn-of-the-century “Sex and the City” cosmopolitan luxe.

And then there are the nuttier shots, of the hobbies and games that constituted the upper crust’s high-flying fun, allowing the fancy pants some respite from corsets and finger sandwiches.

A spirit of delicious caprice infects images like “Bobsled Race” of a madcapped couple navigating some 1911 version of a go cart, kicking up a tsunami of dirt in their wake. Many of Lartigue’s images are of the extreme sports from a gentler time, as in a photograph of two men trying to launch an elaborate Wright Brothers-style airplane while a small group of spectators look on from a windswept, grassy hillside. Flying (kites, planes, people and balls) is a repeated subject in Lartigue’s photographs, like a metaphor for the soaring ambitions and optimism of its subjects.

Though the simple compositions of Lartigue’s images often suggest something painterly, their energy is purely photographic. He employed the camera’s magical ability to stop time and show us things that elude the naked eye. In “Bichonnade,” an otherwise impeccably dressed, prim woman is captured frozen in midair as she bounds down a set of stairs. Part of the appeal of the images is the oddball fit between appearance and action, of these variously dapper individuals engaged in all manner of silliness. There is a Chaplinesque slapstick feel to works like “Zissou caught in the blast” of a mustached man in proper suit and bowler hat leaning into the wake of an airplane propeller.

There is a recurring sense of precipice in Lartigue’s work — a precipice between the past and modernity exemplified by his shots of racing cars soaring into the new age and the woman in “Avenue du Bois de Boulogne” walking with a haughty carriage down the boulevard. Passing behind her on the same street is a mini-discourse of progress: a horse-drawn carriage followed at its heels by a newfangled motor car.

The times they were swiftly a-changing, and Lartigue had the good fortune to be there when they did. Once, Lartigue’s photographs seem to say, people really knew how to live, and we have the pictures to prove it.