January 14, 2013 5:39 pm

‘Bibi’ by Jacques Henri Lartigue

Ahead of his time? The French photographer’s pioneering Autochromes are ideally viewed on a computer screen
Photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue©Ministere de la Culture-France/AA

Many of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s images are extraordinarily well known and with good reason. There are the leaping, sporting pictures from before the first world war, many representing his adored big brother Zissou. Even without illustration, you remember some of these: Zissou unperturbed in his sunglasses and tweed suit in his inner-tube boat; Zissou scattering gravel at speed from one or other of his crazy go-carts; Zissou flying on all sorts of contraptions. Then there are the childishly longing voyeuristic pictures of chic women in the Bois de Boulogne. And later, when he was old enough to know women of his own rather than merely yearning for women in general in the park, there are those magical pictures of his women, for Lartigue used his camera best with those he loved.

The picture shows his first wife, Bibi Messager, taken in 1920. Remember her sitting (only half coyly) on the lavatory in a famous picture he took on their honeymoon? This is just as intimate – and no doubt just as irritating for the sitter. Imagine pretending to ignore a figure of quite the gadfly intensity of Lartigue, hopping and buzzing about as he always did.

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Lartigue, for all his leisured background and his playboy habits, was a hard-working photographer who was an early adopter of new techniques. Many of his famous pictures (including this one) were made as stereoscopic images, to be seen in 3D through a viewer. (Exhibitions occasionally come around showing what they were like. Gobsmacking, there’s no other word.) He used a Nettel 6x13 camera, which provides his distinctive long thin panoramic format: it is the shape of the stereo camera but with one lens removed when (for whatever reason) Lartigue chose.

Stereo; panorama; shutter speeds pushed as far as the available technology would allow. Small wonder that Lartigue was quick to seize on the first commercially available colour technology when the Lumière factory released it in 1907. The Lumière autochrome process was a direct positive process, based on coloured potato starch. It has proved remarkably stable as regards colour, though every collector has despaired at broken glass slides in the boxes. Like the daguerreotype and, later, the Polaroid, and unlike negative-based processes, it presupposed no easy way of making reproductions. As a result, every autochrome is unique. There are a few good holdings of autochromes in the world, mainly in France. The great archive of Albert Kahn has lots and so does the Bibliothèque Nationale.

There are other fine autochrome photographers (many, incidentally, have not been properly researched) but I’ve loved Lartigue for years. I also translated the Lumière correspondence, when my brother agreed to do so for a publisher but grew too busy to complete it. So this picture comes sentimentally at me from several directions. Sentiment is underrated; it suits some forms of expression very well. It certainly suits autochromes.

There’s a contemporary footnote. It used to be that autochromes were never very satisfactorily reproduced. Like slides, they require backlighting and always look flat in books or magazines. But many readers will see this one on a screen. The computer might have been purpose-built for displaying backlit photographs. So here you are: nicely sentimental colour photography from 1920, by a genius, unfaded and properly backlit.

Any good gallery can source modern prints of Lartigue images through the Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue in Paris.

This is part of a series on photography appearing in the FT and in FT Weekend. To see more selections, go to www.ft.com/hodgson

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