I am not entirely sure why, but I find a great amount of sadness on the walls of the 2nd floor of the Photographer’s Gallery. Black and white pictures hang on their surfaces, documenting the birth, life and death of a relationship. The lens falls in and out of love with a subject that is to be replaced in a few frames.
The exhibition is about Jacques Henri Lartigue, and is entitled Bibi. It shows his work during the 1920s, the majority of which he was married to his muse, Madeleine Messager, better known as Bibi. She apparently was the sensible, robust and joyful counterpart to his anxious sensibilities, the anchor to his everyday woes.
She encouraged him to take pictures, and he turned the lens to her, capturing her serene strength with a tangible love. She posed for him, he photographed her, and the film was filled with a combination of pictures and love. As time went by and their social status increased, his self doubt and uncertainty mixed with his cockiness and the spirit of the time led to a series of seductions and affairs, sometimes with the consent of his wife. His portraits changed, the focus on Bibi’s pictures was not as sharp as before, with new sitters suddenly appearing. Young, beautiful women now took her role, and he used his film to depict them, unknowingly photographing Bibi’s future replacements.
Apparently, he was dumbfounded and deeply hurt when she decided to leave him after her father’s death. The journey leading to the end of their love was documented in 1600 handwritten pages and 20 albums of photographs, artefacts of what dissipated in the dark room while developing the roll.
The reason it touched me so was the evident love he had for her; the safety she provided him with her love. The destructive moment that he took it for granted and stepped over a line that threw everything off balance. It is the visual story of a love that was lost, blown away in the wind.
Even though he experimented with different techniques later on, from stereoscopic cameras to colour film, his first set of stills conveys something so powerful and fragile that is impossible not to notice.