on dressing up and other outlandish habits
It required the social immobility of a photographer of genius who happened to be a small child, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, to confine subject matter to the outlandish habits of the photographer’s own family and class. But essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.
Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 57.
Childhood as we now understand it, as innocent and pure, walled off from adult life (like a child’s bedroom in the middle-class or bourgeois home, even the home itself), was perfected side by side with the development of photography. By the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘childhood’ was elaborately capitalized through children’s books, clothes, perambulators, a profusion of nannies, toys, photographic albums, and more. This modern conception of childhood and its material offspring grew as quickly as the child it was trying to suppress, contain and stunt. […] It was as if the camera had to be invented in order to document what would soon be lost - childhood itself - and childhood had to be invented in order for the camera to purely document childhood (a fantasy of innocence) as real.
Carol Mavor, Reading Boyishly (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 78.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, ‘Mardi Gras avec Boubotte, Louis, Robert and Zissou’ (1903), gelatin-silver print
What I want to argue with is that ‘But’ in Sontag’s statement. My last note on Lartigue was about the mobility offered by the camera, and the way that photography’s addiction to pretending - to what you can get out of pure appearance, and the different ways in which you can try things out and try them on - involves it in the shifting identities and possibilities which are so much a part of growing up. Lartigue loves the dressing-up box; and dressing-up for a child is always about the grown-ups; asking What do you want to be when you grow up? and allowing you to visit, briefly, for now, to perform your important reconnaissance work. Knowing (like all tourists) that you’ll have to go back (in time for tea; in time to take the den apart; to fold up the curtains which aren’t ceremonial robes any more); but knowing (unlike most tourists) that the place you go home to is only home for now: a place you’ll move on from, soon. Dressing up, for a child, is an unguided tour of the places you might settle, one day, when you will have to settle for good, and the pretend-stasis of the photo (it will be like this for ever!) takes this trying-out to a logical conclusion for both child and tourist (part of me will always be on this beach! look! I am a cowboy!). Because of this, adult dressing-up is always a bit melancholy: if the fancy dress is outlandish, it calls up nostalgia for a time when life’s possibilities seemed so endless that we might really grow up to be anything (a pirate! a witch!); if less so (a celebrity or fictional but non-fantastic character), instead of inviting us to try out what we might conceivably grow up to be in the future, it lets us taste what we might have been, or might have been like, had we done something different in the past. (And those who choose animal costumes - I have a lot to say about children and animals, later - are the most cheerful because they have found a way to temporarily bypass these regrets and longings: being a tiger is equally impossible for children and adults, and so offers the most immediate way of returning us to the let’s-pretend of childhood. Maybe you could say that all human fancy dress costumes are partly transvestitism - I want to be this, or be someone who could want to be this - whereas the animal costume is pure drag, because it shares the element of incompetence which also gives childhood dressing-up its charm: I make a terrible cat, which makes me a pretty good child-pretending-to-be-a-cat.) When adults take off the costume and go to bed it’s always the last time we do it, like the sadness you feel on the last night of a holiday in a place to which you know you can never return. This is perhaps why photographs of adults in fancy dress cling particularly closely to, and emphasize, the moment they were taken; that evening when we were briefly someone else: Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be… Children, though, are always ‘tourists in other people’s reality’, and especially in their own; and the borders are so easy to cross; and the holiday snaps are all albums of the past and at the same time brochures for the future.
A lot (like Carol Mavor’s claim here) has been written about the attractive symmetry of photography’s vain attempt to preserve the fleetingness of childhood; well, how often do you find a metaphor which is also a metonym, which in both cases works either way around? By asking What is that ‘But’ doing? in Sontag’s writing, I want to argue with this seductive pattern.
Sontag claims that because Lartigue was a child when he took many of his photographs, this lent him a ‘social immobility’ which meant that he only took photographs of people like himself; she’s contrasting him with early documentary photographers who sought out what was ‘completely exotic, therefore worth photographing’. The ‘But essentially’ in her argument is the moment when Lartigue becomes definitively an exception, and therefore not ‘a tourist in other people’s reality’ or his own. Confined to his ‘own family and class’ he is, according to Sontag, unable to access other ways of living and seeing.
Something odd is going on here, though. The more I read Sontag’s description of Lartigue (‘a photographer of genius who happened to be a small child’), the stranger it appears: I want to answer that Lartigue was a prolific photographer all his life, so he ‘happened to be a small child’ only while his childhood was happening. But then I stop, and think that it isn’t true after all. Lartigue’s photographs attest to a considerable achievement: that of ‘happening to be a small child’ - and therefore a special form of tourist, and far from immobile - all his life. What Sontag calls the ‘outlandish habits of the photographer’s own family and class’ blur the boundaries between infancy and adulthood, as toy cars become go-carts become Grand Prix racing cars in Grand Prix de La Baule (1929),
and the boys’ model aeroplanes sit side by side in his albums with the beginnings of French aviation. The Lartigue family wealth allowed its members to be ‘outlandish’ at home, forever; to smuggle the full-size apparatus of a professional photographer into the hands of a child, and import into the lives of adolescents and then adults scaled-up versions of their childhood enthusiasms (but not scaled up into adult professions: Lartigue’s photography was never a means of earning him a living). This makes Sontag’s exception the perfectly representative case, and also a much better photographic symbol than Mavor’s unreal ‘fantasy of innocence’, to which it stands as a counter-example: always only visiting, portable, irrepressible and supplied with the capacity and the resources to realize so many fantasies, a vision of childhood which, like the photograph, is accessible time and time again. Having the best of both (and all) worlds, nothing compelled Lartigue to put away the toys, to take off the fancy-dress, to settle and settle for an occupation or a place to occupy (like Dudu’s littleness/bigness and ours in looking at her, his photographs prolong childhood by preserving alternatives and delaying choice); and it isn’t so much that he ‘happened to be a child’, as that in this milieu his childhood kept happening (kept, happening).
Lartigue, frozen in time; a child; a photograph; snap.