Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Curse of Youth

Gleaner, 1965

The current issue of B&W magazine has a feature about French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue. You may be familiar with this Lartigue image, Bichonade Leaping, that I’ve always found to be interesting.

What struck me about the Lartigue feature was how the magazine editor commented up front that “many photographers were turned on to the camera at a young age,” but that Lartigue’s “most famous photographs were taken when he was between the ages of 6 and 21.”

Wow! Talk about peaking early.

Lartigue is thought of as one of the definers of modern photography. Yet he was ultimately, according to at least one biographer, a “gifted amateur.” This wasn’t meant as a put down. The same biographer credits Lartigue with being an expert in capturing the essence of any moment in time he chose to photograph.

There are many endeavors where people reach their professional peak when they’re young. Athletics is certainly one such area. I haven’t spent much time with star athletes. But back in the late 1980s I had the opportunity to spend a day with an NASA astronaut Rick Hauck. I’ve been fortunate to know a few astronauts. But most of those friendships occurred when I was a kid and the U.S. space program was new. So they were more about hero worship than serious conversation.

With Rick, though, I had the chance to talk about what it was like to have achieved such a lifetime goal—a thrilling naval aviation career followed by flying on two space shuttle missions and being the project officer for a third—so early in his career. Nice guy that he is, Rick made light of his accomplishments, thanked those who had made it possible for him to have such opportunities and then redirected the conversation to something else.

Still, thinking of people like Rick, whose entire career has been exciting but whose best known work was done when he was young, and Jacques Henri Lartigue, whose artistic career apparently peaked not long after puberty, I’ve come to think that at least some people blessed with such experiences and accomplishments probably look upon them as more of a curse than a blessing. Do they spend the rest of their lives trying to top what made them most famous? Do they find inner peace in a life that gradually moves back into the shadows? Can they find new challenges to sustain their enthusiasm?

I haven’t had these problems, of course. I achieved no greater success in youth other than surviving it. The picture above, Gleaner, was taken using a Kodak Instamatic camera when I was about thirteen. It was one of the first pictures I ever took that was something more than a mindless snapshot. I was very proud of this picture. But I’m pretty sure no one will ever look back and say it was my best. If it is…well, I don’t even want to think about that.


  1. I think it's a beautiful photo! You had a good eye even then. Some people never really "see" things, and others intuitively seem to. You're in the latter camp.

  2. i have thought about the idea of "peaking early" when it comes to my life as an account guy. not that i achieved anything so great as a young practitioner; i don't think i did. and i know, i'm head and shoulders better at what i do than i was 20 years ago. BUT, i often think that Dave Luck remains the best client i ever had. on lots of levels. and i worked with him from about the age of 28 until i was 31 or 32. 20 years gone and scores of clients and none measure up to him in my eyes. that depresses me a little. especially since the new breed of client i work these days, is a far cry from the partner Dave was.