Summary of Eugène Atget
A photograph shows the inside of the display of a clothing store like a parody of a theatrical space, where the photographer plays with ambiguity: while the vitrine triggers desire, the glass physically isolates the consumer who contemplates his own reflection mingled with the spectacle of the commodity. Direct, yet enigmatic, images by Eugène Atget earned him the title of "a modern art master" in his use of photography not only for aesthetic ends, but in order to detach the image from its social and cultural referent. Above and beyond their subjects, his photographs are regarded as the bridge between 19th century topographic photography and the so-called art documentary of the 20th century. His work expresses an uncompromising vision that took less account of technical precision, but rather focused on creating a record of pictorial space.
- Atget used photography to describe the different aspects of Paris opposed in many respects to the forms taken on by large-scale modernization. He chose specifically typical architecture before transformation, and small trades or "petits métiers" such as "ice-cream vendors", "wire-basket merchants" or "violet sellers" before their abolition.
- His framings and light treatment explore new perspectives in photography that allowed for both recording the historical documents of the world, and also subtly commented on the images represented. His compositions avoid famous landsmarks in order to focus on a smaller scale, sharing his own sense of vision.
- Paradoxically, he invented an innovative documentary aesthetic by using an old-fashioned wooden camera with a rapid rectilinear lens and the 18x24cm glass negatives that were common at this time. The combined weight of the equipment was around 20 kilos, a burden that Atget had to constantly carry with him when he explored the streets of old Paris by foot, descending the metro staircases, or when he travelled out to the suburbs by train. Ironically, in light of this burdensome camera, his work is associated with the modern figure of the carefree flâneur.
- Considering himself an artisan, Atget has become one of a cardinal references in the Surrealist art movement, while at the same time Man Ray and Berenice Abbott helped reveal his importance to photography. He destabilizes the fixed categories of photographic realism and art, combining and contrasting both dream-like qualities and documentary purposes.
- More than any previous photographer, and probably even artist, Atget fullfilled Charles Baudelaire's maxim: "That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity - that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment - are an essential part and characteristic of beauty."
- Atget made 10,000 negatives from which he produced and sold an estimated 25,000 prints to individuals and institutions. His system for organizing this massive archive consists of classifying his work not by date or places but by topics such as landscapes, architectures, portraits or interiors.
Progression of Art
This image, depicted in an agrarian region in northern France, characterizes Atget's early style. The photographer identified himself with the French tradition of historicizing landscapes, with a total lack of reference to the classic conventions of framing and composition. This particular photo appears to have been influenced by Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, whose series of Haystacks was completed in 1890-91. The sleepy scene captures the quiet countryside and the timeless character of the French farmhouse lifestyle. The repetitive nature of the haystacks and the diagonal of the road push our view into the far-off distance. The scene is missing the presence of a farmer and livestock making it more of a meditation on the environment itself as the title suggests. As a documentary photographer, Atget described himself as a keeper of records. Occupying a unique position at the crossroads between the classical and modern era, he shied away from modernity in order to better prepare for its arrival. He used archaism to confront heterogeneous realities: his subjects often belong to the past; his Duchampian "found" images in the world announces new artistic uses of photography as a way to record reality. Postmodern artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger or Richard Prince will extend this practice by using documentary photographs in their own work.
Although Atget would later become an important reference for the avant-garde with his photographs of famous Parisian architecture, Environs, Amiens is reminiscent of the time when he travelled across the French countryside (locations such as Rouen, Beauvais, and Amiens) in an acting troupe. Initially a sailor and a travelling actor, he lived near this area right before moving to Paris in 1890. Though Atget never considered his photography to be art, he nonetheless took cues from the great painters of his time to make his images more lyrical. According to the art critic John Fraser, "his Rembrandt-esque ability to treat in exactly the same spirit the conventionally beautiful and conventionally sordid issued from the fact that in his approach to the energy of the city, he was able wholly to avoid these dichotomies." In his article entitled "Les spectacles de la rue", Robert Desnos associated Atget to the painter "Douanier Rousseau".
Albumen Print - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
La Monnaie, Quai Conti
This doorknocker, situated on a Parisian state institution building, epitomizes the grandeur of 18th century French architecture and decoration. Atget captures the quality of metal-smithing put into this doorknocker through the details of its wavy mane, furrowed eyebrows, and the careful pattern of the snakes' skin. He approached the ornament at a slight angle and emphasized the shadow and prestige. Atget worked with a large-format bellows camera, developing his own plates. His documentary purpose allows him to adjust contrasts in order to accent the details. He described the photo as, "completely beautiful", but there was another reason he sought to take highly detailed photos - in order to sell them to metalworkers, who would make replicas of the decorations. In 1890, he opened a studio specializing in source images for artists, architects, and set designers. The image was taken only a few years after an organization was established to preserve Paris's architectural heritage. He included it in his first album entitled, "Art in Old Paris." According to one of the great thinkers of the critique of progress - Walter Benjamin - this book announces the surrealist movement: "it gives free play to the politically educated eye." Bernice Abbott states that "we will remember him as an historian of urbanism, a true romantic, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of the French civilization."
La Monnaie, Quai Conti is an essential photograph to Atget's compilation of Old Paris as it represents the official style of Louis XVI from the 1700s. The period style was largely associated with embellished and ornate designs that no longer fit into the new, grand style set forth by Napoleon III in the 1800s. The duality of his photo's use for both aesthetic appreciation and work purposes marks the transition of photography as being more than a document, but also an art form in itself.
Albumen Print - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Ragpicker, avenue des Gobelins
A ragpicker takes up the entire frame of Atget's shot on a Parisian street side. With the background blurred, all the attention is focused on the trade of the man who poses with a very large wooden cart behind him. In 1898 Atget embarked on a project with the quasi-encyclopedic aim of capturing the old city of Paris under threat from new urbanization. With a series on the forgotten jobs, he showed people's day-to-day environment without embellishment.
The photographer reveals the social and political changes that led to modern France. Following the path set forth by the quintessential French modernist, Charles Baudelaire, whose poem, The Ragpickers' Wine, illustrated ragpickers as, "Bruised by hard work, tormented by their years, each bent double by the junk he carries, the jumbled vomit of enormous Paris" - Atget continued this modern epithet and made the ragpicker part of his larger metaphor of the poet as a hero of modernity. Writer Jules Janin considered the ragpicker's basket as "a great catch-basin into which flows all the scum of the social body".
Furthermore, as someone who could personally identify with French workers, he frequently read leftist newspapers and championed the French worker in his subjects. Ragpickers wandered the streets looking for trash to be collected and resold. Their position in society is apparent especially when considering that livestock could easily replace their station. The ragpicker was explored by Édouard Manet, who undertook a series of pictures portraying street characters during the 1860s. At the end of the 20th century, contemporary artist Zoe Leonar defined the photographer him/herself as ragpicker.
Albumen Print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
L'Éclipse, avril 1912
A crowd of people shield their eyes to a solar eclipse taking place in one of Paris's public squares. The masses hold their viewing apparatuses in front of their eyes to view the moment when the moon blocks out the sun. The blurred nature of the photo comes from Atget's camera, whose glass plate negative needed a long exposure time to capture great depth of detail (his camera was best suited for taking images of buildings, not moving people). The mechanical vignetting is due to his having repositioned the lens relative to the plate on the camera as a way to correct perspective and control the image.
Despite its aesthetic flaws, Atget pinpointed something in society much bigger than architecture - the shift of interest into new technologies with the dawn of modern manufacturing. L'Éclipse, avril 1912 captures the French public's fascination with the state-of-the-art gadgets. While the title suggests the image is about the solar eclipse, the image does not show the eclipse but instead insinuates the event with the gawking crowd. The photo attracted the Surrealists who wanted society to start concentrating on things more personal like dreams rather than collective thought. They renamed the photograph, "The Last Conversions" to mock the group mentality of Catholicism and their belief in miracles. Atget's studio was on the same street in Montparnasse as the studio of the Dada and Surrealist Man Ray who encountered the photographer's work around 1923. The photograph was purchased by Man Ray and became the cover for the Surrealist magazine in 1926.
Albumen Print - George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York
Hôtel du Cardinal Dubois, 10 rue de Valois
This relief inset above the first floor window of the historic Chancellerie d'Orleans townhouse, also known as the Hôtel de Voyer d'Argenson, is an exact copy of a relief by French Renaissance sculptor, Jean Goujon made in 1549. Atget was particularly fascinated by the historic centre, whose buildings and magnificent palaces dated from before the French revolution.
The relief symbolized the rebirth of art throughout history; with the nymph resembling artworks from classical antiquity and the replication of the relief signaled the rebirth of the French arts in the 1600s. Vanishing historical buildings, like the Hôtel du Cardinal Dubois, were up against a fast encroaching need to modernize Paris and rid the city of the old styles. Despite it being one of the most celebrated interiors in Europe, the mansion was demolished 1922-23 during the Haussmann renovations. Atget did his part to document the townhouse and the salvaged decor, though inaccessible to the public for many years after, has become a contemporary project of the World Monument's Fund and French Archives Nationales displaying the remaining furnishings as a part of French history.
Albumen Print - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
This atmospheric street view of the Panthéon is an example of what Atget became best known for: photographs of iconic French architecture. A cobbled brick road leads to a church adorned with a colonnaded dome built in Neoclassical style. The photographer's point of view is very original and innovative. He chose an oblique perspective rather than a frontal view. Moreover, he overexposed the film in order to bring out the fog-veiled Panthéon in the distance.
The sleepy early morning setting is void of any passersby and because of this, the image becomes more like a study of mood and the presence of architecture in the city. First, Atget took photos in the middle of the day to capture bright, natural light, but later he starting taking pictures in the early morning to achieve a softer, hazy light. The muted nature of the photo contrasts with the rich history and the supreme importance of the building itself.
Originally, the building - a cruciform church, also a Baroque masterpiece, was dedicated to the saint of Paris, Genevieve. However, the church was repurposed during the French revolution and used as a mausoleum for important revolutionary figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marat. The subtle presentation of such an important building is what makes his image more than a display of architecture in photography, but an enigmatic tribute to French history.
Gelatin silver chloride print on printing-out paper - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
This classically inspired sculpture situated in the Garden of Versailles shows the mythological Cretan princess, Ariane, laying seductively on her lounge. Traditional Greek linens wrap around her full-bodied figure and flow freely throughout the entire sculpture like the organic and sensuous lines that emerge from an unrestrained mind. While resting her eyes, she dreams about the Greek God of wine and fertility, Dionysos.
The Versailles gardens hold special value to the history of France since Louis XIV oversaw the design. The gardens became one of Atget's most photographed obsessions beginning in 1901 until his death in 1927. Little escaped Atget's tripod camera in the park, including its grand stairways, statues, vases, water fountains, and ponds. The story of Ariane finds its way into modern dialogue through her story of a promised eternal life as the daughter of King Minos. Though she is left by her lover, Theseus, who she helped escape from the Minotaur's labyrinth, she fantasizes instead that Dionysos wishes to marry her.
Dreaming (or fantasizing) fascinated the Surrealists who strongly credited the realm of the unconscious to free minds, allowing for a purer state of being and a heightened state of creativity. The sculpture is in no small part a symbolic illustration of the uninhibited and imagined world that takes over our minds in our most intimate and erotically charged moments.
Salted paper print from glass negative - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Storefront avenue des Gobelins
This is one of Atget's more playful images that he created toward the end of his life. Fashion mannequins scatter a display case like human surrogates, showcasing the trendy female fashions of the day. Their exaggerated gestures make for an odd display that is further complicated by various reflections in the window. Tree branches, a building opposite the storefront, and Atget's own leg overlap the scene and create new shapes and references.
Photographs of the vitrines hold a special places in Atget's work. The treatment of light resulted from a masterful technique. The intermingling spaces, objects, and tones of black simultaneously merge and disjoint the photograph into the real and the reflected, making it a photo championed by the Surrealists and their love to explore the connection between fiction and reality. One particular image he took of a corset shop was used by Surrealists in their magazine as an account of a dream where the corset-dressed mannequin comes alive with connotations of sexuality and violence.
While Atget captured urban life throughout most of his career, the department store display case is by far the most modern Atget ever became. Ironically, Atget created his images to be a lasting documents of what once was, yet the avenue still has an emporia devoted to the sale of clothes. Atget chronicled men's and children's clothing stores, along with other miscellaneous Parisian storefronts. When Printemps, the large department store, asked the French photographer Sabine Weiss to take photographs of their windows at every change of season, her images refer to this strong documentary tradition. They have now also become documents testifying to the consumer objects of the 1950s.
The ambiguous space of this photo was first revered by surrealists like Man Ray and later sensed in the work of photorealist artist, Richard Estes. Like Atget, Estes captured photos of storefronts, but he later took the photos back to his studio to create various paintings; from similar handling of reflections, to works like Double Self-Portrait, that have multiple reflections within a single image.
Matte albumen print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Biography of Eugène Atget
Childhood and Education
Jean Eugène Auguste Atget was born in Libourne (France) to working-class parents, Jean-Eugène Atget, a carriage maker and saddler, and Clara-Adeline Atget. His father changed careers to be a traveling salesman only to die a few years later on business. Shortly after, his mother, Clara, died as well. Faced with a harsh and unforgiving childhood, which left him orphaned at the age of five-years-old, he was raised by his elderly grandparents, Victoire and Auguste Hourlier, who lived in Bordeaux, France. Atget soon joined the seafaring life as a cabin boy.
In 1878, Atget moved to Paris and applied to France's most important acting school, the National Conservatory of Music and Drama. He poured all his hope into this opportunity since he had little money and was also living in a dingy part of town. Sadly, he was not only rejected by the acting school but was then drafted into the army for five compulsory years of service. Atget, determined to make a career for himself in acting, reapplied and was accepted one year later. His future in acting looked bright according to his mentor and famous actor, Edmond Got. However, his short stature of 5'5" did not lend itself to an ideal presence on stage, and Edmond Got later described Atget as having an, "inelegant accent." In a series of unfortunate events, he was dismissed before graduation in 1881 and in the same year, his grandparents died.
Atget did not give up performing after the dismissal. Instead, he turned to acting in small troupes that travelled around the French countryside. The experience proved fruitful for Atget who made many friends including fellow actor, Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, who became his lifelong companion. Shortly after leaving the troupe, Atget looked for a new creative outlet and took-up painting. He moved to Paris and started working as a professional photographer in 1888, he also did not have any formal training in photography, but his choice was most likely made out of financial necessity.
At a time when photography was quickly becoming well-known for its documentary purposes, Atget setup his own studio in Paris in 1890. He displayed a sign that advertised his photography as Documents pour artistes (Documents for artists), selling photos of landscapes, flowers, monuments, and the like. His work did not just serve artists, but also set decorators, historians, metal smiths, publishers, and later, national institutions. Atget soon found his life's work in documenting old Paris beginning in 1897. Thanks to the Baron Haussmann public works and buildings renovations that swept Paris at the end of the 19th century, Paris was a vastly changing city that saw the demolition of old buildings and streets destroyed by war to make way for more modern architecture. Atget sought to capture architecture and decoration in his photography before it was forever gone.
Though his impetus to capture a changing Paris was done all on his own accord, he had also found a business niche where he could earn a living wage. He remained frugal in his lifestyle, never throwing away paper that was not completely used, wearing old clothes and sustaining himself off of a prudent diet of bread and milk (because of digestive problems, but also, he said, because anything more was "immoderate luxury"). One of his friends described him as 'intransigent, obstinate, and independent.' His stubborn personality and thrifty nature led him to also embrace the old photographic technologies like the cumbersome, tripod-mounted view camera that used glass plates. He took this very large camera along with him outside and used it on a regular basis rather than the available hand-held cameras. The same went for the film he used, albumen paper was just as outdated as the tripod camera. When the film ceased to be manufactured, Atget nonetheless was still able to find the film and print using albumen.
Atget described his work as making documents. However, his short time spent as a painter and living in France during a time when painting en plein air was quickly becoming popular, influenced him to create many photos of nature like lily pads, budding trees, and haystacks that are highly redolent of the Impressionist artists like Monet. Nonetheless, Atget never joined any of the flourishing photographic or arts clubs of his day.
In 1898, Atget saw his first real success in photography when he sold his photographs of Paris to various state run organizations, such as the Musée de Sculpture Comparé and the Musée Carnavalet, and later, the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris and École des Beaux-Arts, among others. By 1901, Atget successfully became a Paris "specialist." He printed new business cards that read, "E. Atget, Creator and Purveyor of a Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris." His passion for theater continued and beginning in 1904, he lectured on theater at various universities across Paris. His commercial success would continue to burgeon, but he did not receive adequate funds for his work until much later in his life, which solidified his outmoded ways of photography and austere lifestyle.
Once World War I broke out, Atget produced very few, if any images at all. After the war, more interest was taken in the reconstruction of Paris than in photos of the old city. Yet, he did achieve another commercial success of selling 2,600 thousand of his glass plate negatives to the French State. His heart-felt commitment to documenting Paris in painstaking detail shows the dedication that he felt towards his photography: "For more than 20 years I have been working alone and of my own initiative in all the old streets of old Paris to make a collection of 18 x 24 [centimeter] photographic negatives: artistic documents of beautiful urban architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Today this enormous artistic and documentary collection is finished; I can say I possess all of old Paris."
Once Atget met the Surrealist Man Ray and his studio assistant, Bernice Abbott, the perception of his work changed forever. Abbot saw Atget's photos around Ray's studio and she starting visiting Atget frequently. Abbott bought his photos whenever she could, and eventually convinced him to sit for a photograph in her studio. Just one year before Atget's death, a few members of the Surrealist movement approached Atget to use one of his photos as the cover of their magazine, La Révolution Surréaliste. They enjoyed the dreamlike qualities of his photographic style and uncanniness of his subjects. Though Atget agreed, he did not want the photos to be attributed back to him, since he believed his photos were just to be documents, not artwork. Atget, in the role of an artist, didn't get much recognition in his lifetime. Instead, his photos were collected and used by famous French painters like Maurice Utrillo, Georges Braque, and André Derain.
In June of 1926, Atget's longtime companion, Valentine died. Atget's health steadily declined until he passed away on August 4th, 1927. Abbott bought the rest of Atget's archive that totaled about 5,000 prints and 1,300 negatives, and worked to promote his images with New York City gallery owner, Julian Levy. The other part of his work was given to the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Once Abbott returned to America, she set to work allowing for Atget's photos to be seen by a larger public. Cataloging all the plates and prints she owned of Atget's she hoped to publish a book of his work and she selected photos for various traveling exhibitions. All the while back in Europe, French magazines began picking up on his elegant shots of architecture and his work was published in Le Crapouillot and L'Art Vivant. In 1930, Abbott's book on Atget was published simply named, Atget. His images started to be recognized as works of art and as a lifelong commitment to document everything Paris might lose in the wake of modernism.
Atget's style of photographing lived on in Abbott's photography of the New York City with subsequent museum exhibitions comparing Atget's Paris and Abbot's New York City. Finally, after many years of promoting Atget's photography Levy and Abbott sold their archive to The Museum of Modern Art where photography curator, John Szarkowki's scholarship and posthumous exhibitions of his work solidified Atget's reputation as a pioneering French photographer.
The Legacy of Eugène Atget
Atget's career was in many ways more influential than it was well-known. His photography greatly influenced photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and later giants like Irving Penn and Lee Friedlander. Abbott's images of soaring New York City skyscrapers, Manhattan house doorways, and storefronts in the 1930s have a strong connection to Atget's subjects of monuments and iconic buildings. Like Atget, who did not crop his photos, Abbott was a straight photographer, who did not believe in manipulating photographs.
The interest that Atget took in window reflections continued in the work of Lee Friedlander's photography that was prolific in the 1960s and 1970s. Though his photos focused more on the "social landscape" of cities, Friedlander also used reflections to combine or disjoint space to add a more complex narrative to his photos. Quite possibly one of the most influential photographers to come out of the 20th-century was influenced by Atget's documentary style as well. Walker Evans's encyclopedic collection of modern America with its small-town main streets and the people scattered along the streets are highly similar to Atget's famous street views and pictures of the lower classes in France.
Moreover, Atget's photographs influenced French writers and poets like Pierre Mac Orlan, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, and André Breton. He was thus one of the inspirations for the Surrealist movement.
Atget's work also influenced contemporary painters like Richard Estes, who heavily drew upon reflective surfaces found in urban centers. His mirror imagery of shiny cars and shop windows amplify Atget's legacy by looking at surfaces most prominent in our society. Lastly, the fears of modernism felt so deeply by Atget reverberated through to the post-war Pop art movement and postmodernism. Various Pop and conceptual artists like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Ed Ruscha grew increasingly weary of the mass consumer culture and its effects of a one-dimensional civilization.