Clad in a white fur coat and an elegant dress, her boat drifting toward the harbour of Cannes, Madeleine Messager is in the photographer’s undivided centre of attention. With her tilted head and shadowy eyes she glances mysteriously at her husband behind the lens. It’s the work of influential photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue and only one of many snapshots depicting his beloved first wife ‘Bibi’ in the 1920s. Actually, Lartigue was a gifted collector. A collector of moments, if you will: « Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true. » Since the early age of 8, when his technophile father gave him his first camera, he captured and eventually eternalised his impressions on film. Almost 10,000 photographs and 7,000 diary pages bear witness to an incredible photographic timeline, spanning over eight decades of his lively journey: Moments of joy and adventure, expressions of friendship and love as well as manifestations of desire and sorrow.
For its current major exhibition, ‘The Photographers’ Gallery’ draws its attention back to Lartigue’s early works and documents the two lovers’ troubled relationship from the halcyon days of marriage until their tragic separation in 1930. Assembling a wide selection of stunning black and white photographs, rare color glass plates and stereoscopic cards, ‘Jacques Henri Lartigue: Bibi’ takes the observer on a wonderful time travel to the ‘Golden Twenties’ and the luxurious lifestyle of the Bohemian high society. In a dynamic, daring and reckless fashion, Lartigue’s works portray the exciting, adventurous and carefree lives of family and friends, yet the beautiful façade can certainly not belie the steady friction and decay of Jacques’ and Bibi’s relationship.
While depicting Bibi primarily in the very focus of his photographs during the early years of their marriage, Lartigue eventually began to portray her in the company of other female companions, often in the background or even out of place. The premature death of their daughter Vèronique in 1924, growing financial straits and his perpetual indulgence in affections for other women visibly left its marks. More and more, her winning smile vanished. Humbled and grief-stricken, the woman who once greatly inspired Lartigue’s creativity finally left for good. Bibi became Madeleine Messager again.
The exhibition ‘Jacques Henri Lartigue: Bibi’ still runs until 5th January 2014 at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW.