Belle époque

William Boyd on the miraculous snaps of boy genius Jacques Henri Lartigue

What must it be like for an artist to achieve success only at the end of a long, relatively ignored career? The word ‘bittersweet’ seems particularly apt. Yet, late recognition is better, I suppose, than dying in oblivion like Vincent van Gogh, Franz Kafka or John Kennedy Toole. One of my favourite photographers, Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894–1986), did manage to savour the sweet smell of success in his old age. Lartigue’s late flowering was down to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its then director of photography, John Szarkowski. There’s a very good argument to be made that during Szarkowski’s tenure at MoMA (1962–91) his shows transformed 20th-century photography.