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Falling in and out of love

Stories of love found and lost are everywhere.

But few romances have had their highs and lows documented by one of the world’s most acclaimed photographers, or had such glamorous settings.

A new exhibition in London documents the arc of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s 12-year marriage to the high-society bohemian Madeleine Messager, the subject of hundreds of his photographs and the mother of his only child.

Lartigue met Messager, whose parents were the composer Andre Messager and the Irish opera singer Hope Temple, while vacationing in the Alps in 1917. Messager set her sights on the French photographer and won him over. He proposed, giving up the carefree life of a bachelor to marry the woman he nicknamed Bibi.

“What am I? And what am I doing here?” Lartigue wrote in his diary. “I am a married man – on my honeymoon. I think it must be the funniest thing in the world, me, a married man, on his honeymoon. Bibi and I go everywhere together … arm in arm. We look at everything; we discover everything.”

The curator of the exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, Maryse Cordesse, was a friend of Lartigue. Her inspiration came from reading his diary, in which he wrote that he hoped someone who “loved him enough” would one day make a book combining his diary with his photographs.

“I chose the period of his first marriage because I like Bibi, who is not the most beautiful woman in Lartigue’s albums but who is so alive,” Cordesse said. “I like the freedom of the period, its modernity, the parenthesis between two dreadful wars, the life of a young couple which breaks on (Lartigue’s) own blindness of what is real life, like F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

In addition to what the photos show about Lartigue’s intimate life, Cordesse said, “on a technical point of view, it is the period when Lartigue goes on with stereo views, autochromes and uses a lot of the panoramic size, which gives large, generous and elegant respiration to the images.”

The exhibition explores the couple’s relationship with frankness. At first, we see Bibi, center-frame, playful and spirited as they traveled between Paris; Biarritz, France; and the Riviera. It continues with their life of recreation and sport, with Lartigue photographing his aristocratic family and friends at leisure.

Their first child, Dani, was born in 1921. Tragedy came suddenly in 1924, when their second child, Veronique, was born prematurely and died after only a few months.

Deeply affected, Bibi became depressed and Lartigue sought the attention of other women. After this period, we begin to see multiple women in the photos of his wife, with Bibi sometimes relegated to the edges.

Bibi eventually filed for divorce, forcing a break that was very difficult for Lartigue. Post-divorce – after Lartigue found a new muse, the model Renee Perle - his photographs became more formal, losing the spontaneity of his earlier work of Bibi.

Lartigue visited New York when he was in his late 60s, and he was discovered by the curator John Szarkowski, who soon presented Lartigue’s work in a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Lartigue’s adventurous shooting style fit well with the modern aesthetic of movement, spontaneity and intimacy, and he found himself thrust into the spotlight. He was invited to shoot for Life magazine, and he was commissioned to shoot the official portrait of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Lartigue was born in 1894, in one of the wealthiest families in France, and he began taking photographs as early as 7 years old, using a camera given to him by his father. In addition to taking photographs, he painted and faithfully kept his handwritten diary.

Over his lifetime, Lartigue put 40,000 of his photographs into 135 oversized albums, and he wrote under all of the images. He donated these albums to the French state in 1979, along with his negatives and his diary.

“Lartigue was 85 and he obtained unusual conditions for his donation,” Cordesse said. “He did not want it to go to a museum, which was for him a kind of death of his photos which he wanted to stay alive.”

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN