Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Origins of the Snapsot Aesthetic

Slate features an article on Jacques Henri Lartigue, who was a sort of photographic prodigy in the early part of the 20th century. The piece is titled The Lartigue Hoax, but that is a bit overblown. The hoax, if it could be called that is merely a disagreement between scholars over whether Lartigue was a sort of child prodigy savant who could be seen as a forerunner to the snapshot aesthetic of Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, or was he a shrewd artist with an eye for irony?

MoMa has chosen to display his work under the former theory.
Lartigue presented his work as the innocent expression of a wonderstruck boy amateur, and MoMA was happy to promote it as such. It was just the sort of thing they were looking for. Szarkowski, a curator of unequalled influence, was trying to establish a new style of photography, based on an aesthetic of spontaneity, contingency, intimacy, and autobiography. Robert Frank was the progenitor of this kind of work, and Gary Winogrand was the heir apparent, but the style needed roots in the origins of the medium if it was really going to stick. It had to be presented in a way that made it seem both completely unexpected and entirely inevitable; that's what museums do, and Szarkowski was unusually good at it. Lartigue was the photographic equivalent of the missing link, the bridge that connected prehistory to our modern selves.
But other scholars describe him as, "the photographic equivalent of Piltdown Man: a hoax foisted upon a credulous public." Claiming that he was, "probing, observant, sophisticated, and mocking - …out to prove his insider knowledge - —to show that he knew what was in fashion, that he noticed how people scrutinized each other, that he understood the humor of personal vanity."

Looking at his work, he certainly had an artist's eye, but his age, seeing as how much of his work was completed before his 20th birthday, belies an overly calculating spirit. But little is known about this young artist and his work will have to speak for itself.

Read the whole article here.

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