One of the earliest exponents of motorsport photography was French artist Jacques-Henri Lartigue.
Born in Courbevoie just outside Paris in June 1894, Lartigue began shooting all forms of sporting action as a child, although many of these captures were merely photographs of friends and family playing locally.
Admittedly, the young Lartigue encouraged many of his peers to be almost hyper-active in their gamesmanship – as long as it made for a credible portrait.
Interestingly, amongst Lartigue’s early subjects was soap box racing – a most basic standard racing, but all this was more than enough to sow the seeds. In his formative years, Lartigue was already amassing a collection of toy cars – a special gathering noted in a portrait taken when he was only eleven years old.
Amidst all this action, a love of the early aeroplanes and motorcars grabbed at Lartigue’s imagination, encouraged somewhat by numerous visits to motor races of the decade. More importantly, Lartigue’s wealthy background allowed for eager access to a sport and an industry keen to develop before his eyes.
There was no holding the Frenchman back. By 18, he could be found trackside at Dieppe, shooting the 20-lap French Grand Prix – a race won with ease by Peugeot pioneer driver, Georges Boillot. Lartigue also photographed the Gordon Bennett Cup, while outside of motorsport, the ostentatious Parisian added the French Open to his list of pictorialised sporting events.
It was during the 1913 French Grand Prix at Amiens (also won by Boillot) when Lartigue took one of his most enduring photographs. Entitled “Race Car”, the shot utilised a rolling shutter to capture René Croquet and his riding mechanic distorted and leaning toward one side of the photograph, while the spectators are skewered in the opposite direction.
With the image stretched and unclean, the shutter appears to capture the extreme violence of Croquet attacking the road, while a couple of spectators look beyond for the next racer passing through.
As Croquet powers out of the corner hard, the spectators become mere blurred shadows. while the wheels remain sharp, demanding attention.
Just a single frame necessary to showcase the intensity of early Grand Prix motor racing capturing the wonderful nature of this early machines in a more carefree time.
As the roaring 1920s turned, Lartigue fell away from shooting motorsport, instead turning his hand to painting and although not hugely successful in his prime, he did manage to sell consistently to magazines such as La View au Grand Air.
He did continue to photograph in this time, although his subjects tended to be other artists, including famed cubist and innovator Pablo Picasso, as well as film-makers François Truffaut and Federico Fellini; however his mistress Renée Perle remains his frequent of subjects.
Throughout this period, Lartigue made approximately 120 huge photographic albums, composing an elegant autobiographical document detailing the first half of the twentieth century.
Painting allowed Lartigue to earn a living, but mainstream success continued to elude him for much of his adult life; however that all changed in the early 1960s, when Lartigue’s album set was rediscovered by Charles Rado – founder of the humanist press agency, Rapho.
Mesmerised by the collection, Rado brought Lartigue to meet John Szarkowski, curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, whereupon the then 69-year-old photographer enjoyed critical acclaim for his work, resulting in spread in Life magazine.
Lartigue’s life continued apace, publishing numerous pictorial books in his latter years, as word of his work spread worldwide. He would eventually pass away in 1986, at the age of 92.
Today, Grand Prix racing still plays host to a number of modern photographic artists, whether it be Darren Heath or Mark and Keith Sutton amongst others.
Irrespective of the time, these stunning cars still maintain a form of beauty, basking in power, but it is the ability of those who deliver such passion filled shots that really astound.