It’s not often the work of a 10-year-old artist winds up in a museum. The French child prodigy Jacques-Henri Lartigue is an exception, having been included in a variety of international exhibitions stretching back to the 1960s.
His photograph “Ma cousine Bichonnade” makes a nice entry point for the current show at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, En Noir Et Blanc: Early French Photography. The image shows the eponymous Bichonnade hovering down an outdoor staircase, the whimsical moment seized perfectly by her young cousin Lartigue.
In the neighboring photograph, “Avenue de Bois de Boulogne,” Lartigue turned his gaze to the public realm, capturing a Belle Époque madame on a stroll, her furs and dogs aligned perfectly with upturned nose. This one Lartigue shot in 1911 at the ripe old age of 16.
Two amazing photographs made by a kid! — both so guileless and natural you’d think any weekend snapshooter could take them. And maybe they could, for that’s the magic, and the curse, of photography in a nutshell. One can create a masterpiece with almost no training, but mastery is more elusive.
Which brings me to the photo on the room’s opposite end. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954,” balances Lartigue’s youthful moxie with a photograph of youth itself. A beaming boy, by the looks of him roughly Lartigue’s age in 1905, carries two wine jugs around a street corner. The enormous bottles sit precariously in his small arms, and the proud moment is anxious with a sense of looming catastrophe. What happens next? It’s a delightfully ambiguous moment.
Whether this is childhood before the fall or just another street courier, Cartier-Bresson’s timing is impeccable. Of course, keen timing was his forte. As the wall captions note, his book Images à la Sauvette helped codify and popularize the significance of serendipity in street photography.
Alas, French law has since restricted the publication of candid moments, sweeping Cartier-Bresson’s era into the history books and onto the museum walls. “Rue Mouffetard” might roughly symbolize its high-water mark.