December 06, 1982 12:00 PM

A soft rain falls on Paris. On the rue de Longchamp, shoppers hurry down the damp streets. Inside a turn-of-the-century building a visitor climbs up the polished winding stairs to the apartment of Jacques Henri Lartigue. His wife, Florette, a white towel wrapped firmly around her head, stops her cleaning to bring the guest to her husband’s study. And suddenly, there he is, caught in mid-flight like the belle époque photographs he is famous for, tossing a log into his small cast-iron stove. Lartigue steps lightly over the TV cables that snake around the room (set up for an interview later in the day) and, smiling like a small boy, comes forward.

In 1901, when this man was all of 7 years old, Picasso had completed an early Harlequin, André Gide was putting the finishing touches on L’lmmoraliste, and Maurice Ravel had just composed his first important piano piece, Jeux d’Eau. That same year Jacques Lartigue started taking pictures. His first camera, a gift from his father, Henri, a successful Parisian banker, was polished wood with a lens extension in green-and-gray cloth. To peer into it, the small boy had to climb onto a stool. “I know very well that many many things are going to ask me to have their pictures taken, and I will take them all,” the exuberant Lartigue wrote in his journal.

He was right. His playful snapshots of friends and family flying kites, careering down hills in roadsters and struggling to fly in awkward gliders—not to mention his pictures of beautiful women strolling in the Bois de Boulogne—have somehow kept this lost world eerily alive. Last week more than 100 of the “many many things” he captured on film went on view at the International Center of Photography in New York. During the next three years the show, Bonjour Monsieur Lartigue, will travel to 12 other cities in the U.S. Lartigue, said Richard Avedon, “is the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer” in the history of the art. Adds fashion photographer Hiro: “There is tremendous innocence in his photographs, but there is nothing accidental about the image he captures.”

Lartigue was born at Courbe-voie, five miles from the center of Paris. When Jacques was 2, his family moved to the rue Cortambert near the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement. “Now Courbevoie is ugly, but then it was still the countryside,” says Jacques, settling into the little sofa by the window where he writes daily in his journal. “My first memories? They were of the branches of trees in the sky, a bit of water—just so in the outdoor fountain—and the hands of the gardener. They were large and covered with earth. He was my friend.”

Lartigue’s father was devoted to his family and showered his sons, Jacques and elder brother Maurice (his nickname was Zissou), with gifts. When he was 10, Jacques told his father, then 35, “Try to live for another 10 years. That way we can die together.”

Excluded from the pursuits of his equally extraordinary brother, who was busy building a merry-go-round and crates on wheels, Lartigue taught himself to be a kind of eyetrap, retaining images he chose to remember by opening and closing his eyes three times in a row. “But after a while,” he says “I looked at what I had in my head and obviously I had kept nothing. I fell ill with a small fever.”

Real, not magical, picture taking quickly consoled Jacques, and his family accepted his passion without any fuss. “They were nice about it,” he says, “but what I did didn’t particularly interest them. I remember my mother paid for developing the plates. Because it was so expensive, I promised I would stop taking pictures when I was 18.”

Lartigue led a charmed life in the years before World War I, spending holidays at villas his father rented along the French coast at Dieppe, Hendaye, Calais and Villerville. But he is not particularly nostalgic about the belle époque. “All periods have their good and bad points, like people,” he says. “It was an agreeable time because there were no automobiles and it didn’t smell badly and everything was natural. But if you wanted to take a bath, you had to fetch water. Everything wasn’t perfect.”

In 1919 Jacques married his first wife, Bibi Messager, the daughter of composer André Messager. Their friendship had ripened at Aix-les-Bains, where her mother was taking the waters. “She was pretty,” he says of Bibi. “I invited her out for tea and to go boating.” Bibi is the mother of his only child, Dany, a painter.

During World War II, with two failed marriages and a string of adventures behind him, Lartigue met his current wife, Florette Orméa, at Monte Carlo. She is 27 years his junior. “I remember that she had pretty hands with red nails, which at the time was unusual,” Lartigue says. “But she didn’t wear any makeup at all, none. I didn’t want to marry. I was free. But she was so good, so nice, I felt it was worth it.”

Over the years Lartigue earned his living mostly as a painter. He has done portraits of, among others, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot. “In France,” he says flatly, “no one looked at my photographs. They were ignored.” On a trip to the U.S. in 1962, Lartigue showed some of his photos to his friend Charles Rado, head of a picture agency. “He thought they were amazing, and he called everyone he knew. All of a sudden everyone was talking about them. It went like lightning.” The following year Lartigue had his breakthrough exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The Lartigues divide their time between Paris and their villa in the south of France. An early riser, Lartigue begins each day with a 15-minute stroll. At quarter to 7 he wakes up Florette (they have been married 40 years). “Either living with a woman is good or it is not,” he says. “One should not accept mediocrity. It is better to be alone.” They exercise together, and Jacques has a breakfast of cornflakes, cheese and black coffee. By 8 o’clock he is in his study, writing in his journal or painting.

The morning rain has stopped. Florette comes into the study to hem the yellow curtains. Lartigue shifts slightly in his seat. Is he afraid of dying? “No,” he says. “I believe in God and I love Him.” Is there anything he regrets in his life? “Yes, that I don’t have more talent. That I am not an angel.”

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