Photography as a search for happiness. Reflections on (of us, thanks to) Jacques Henri Lartigue
2 September 2020
Words by @ale_theia
Dear traveller, why do we photograph?
To remember better, to find something or someone from the present in the near future, to collect or catalogue? Someone might answer: to share, to give, to make known and to tell. To inform, document a change. Or to not let go? To live a second time. It’s good to ask yourself these questions every now and then. Reflect on an established habit. Also, thanks to the inspiration of those who preceded us by almost a century.
I recently went to Venice to find out if with a few fewer visitors it would have offered me a different image and atmosphere among its canals and narrow streets usually crowded with tourists. I discovered that the metaphysical desolation of the first months of 2020 narrated by the inhabitants and the newspapers no longer exists in the streets of the center, and that it is still mandatory to get lost, even if the Rialto bridge has never been so easy to cross. In search of a bit of tranquillity, having greeted San Marco, I then took the vaporetto that sets off from its shores to reach the island of San Giorgio and then Giudecca in a few minutes. The first stop is in front of the Casa dei Tre Oci, the beautiful building that takes its name from the windows that overlook the city that stands out beyond the water.
On display in these weeks, and until January, there are the images of Jacques Henri Lartigue, French photographer born in 1894 and witness of much of the twentieth century, in an exhibition that keeps the promises of its title, “The invention of happiness”. For the child Lartigue, who meets the camera at the age of 7, a fatherly gift, photography is immediately an extension of his imagination, a way to experiment and capture something that would otherwise be denied to human eyes; for that enfant prodige , as he was later defined, but also for the adult Lartigue, as if it were a mission, it is a small miracle that allows him to preserve those happy moments that populate his comfortable life. And if each photograph is already a selection of a portion of reality, Lartigue makes a further selection, and chooses to retain only positive memories, carefree and at the same time charged with an intensity of which we can perceive the echo.
Lartigue did what no photographer had done before and no one did after: photograph his own life. (Richard Avedon)
If today for most of us photography has become the transposition of our life into a public thing, in which beauty is framed, if not constructed, for a shot that does not remain immortal, fed in an uninterrupted flow to those who follows us while we are content, lazy, with the features at “happened today” and storing them in a hard disk, Lartigue took photographs of his life to collect them in private albums, about 200. He probably did not imagine, he who cultivated the missed dream to be a painter, what their destiny would be, a hundred years later. Pages full of annotations and drawings, which tell of affections, loves – for family, for sport, for movement – filled by an unaware man who, one day in 1963, on the eve of his 70th birthday, wou
ld have been exhibited at the MoMA in New York in a personal one by the will of John Szarkowski, and that Avedon would have transformed them at any cost into a book that made him known to the world, Diary of a century.
It is this lack of will to exhibit that makes many of the photographer’s images, mostly in black and white, memories capable of fascinating us and of becoming a little ours too, often tearing a smile and insinuating in us that lightness that almost didactic transpires from the challenge to the gravity of his subjects, but also from the always delicate gaze of Lartigue.
“Lartigue,” Denis Curti, curator of the Casa dei Tre Oci and the exhibition tells me, “simply wanted to tell about his happy moments. I think that’s one of the reasons why they like the exhibition so much: it makes you understand how photography as a tool can become a mirror. ” Szarkowski had written a book for an exhibition on American photographers titled Mirrors and windows: American Photography since 1960, in which he divided photographers into two categories: those who use photography to look at themselves and understand who they are, and those who they use to tell us about the world, as if they were windows. “Lartigue, with his exhibition, somehow opened up to a new photography at the time, breaking up those categories to arrive at this synthesis.”
It makes us want to look at the world with his eyes, to take pictures for his own reasons, in the hope of not distracting ourselves too much in front of everything beautiful that could happen to us. It makes you want to seek happiness.