Text from A World History of Photography
Profile: Eugene Atget
Few facts are known of the early life of Eugene Atget, the photographer whose extraordinary documentation of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century was for many years uncelebratcd. Born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857 and orphaned at an early age, he was employed as cabin boy and seaman after completing his schooling. During the 1880s, Atget took up acting, playing in provincial theaters, but settling permanently in Paris in 1890 he realized the impossibility of a stage career in the capital. Instead, he turned to the visual arts, deciding on photography in view of his limited art training and also because he expected that it was a profession that might yield income from the sale of camera images to artist neighbors in Montparnasse.
Between 1898 and 1914, Atget received commissions from and sold photographs to various city bureaus, including the archive of the national registry, Les Monuments historiques, and the recently established Carnavalet Museum that had been set up to preserve a record of the history of Paris. He also supplied documents to a clientele of architects, decorators, and publishers, as well as artists, keeping records of both subjects and patrons. One project, for a book on brothels, planned but never realized by Andre Dignimont in 1921, is said to have annoyed the photographer, but the images for this work have the same sense of immutable presence as those of other working people photographed by Atget in the streets or shops of Paris. Often self-motivated rather than directly commissioned, Atget nevertheless followed in the tradition marked out by the photographers of the 1850s Monuments historiques project and by Charles Marville, who had photographed the neighborhoods about to be replaced by Baron Haussmann's urban renewal projects. In common with these photographers, Atget did not find documentation and art antithetical, but attempted to invest all images with intrinsically, photographic form. He showed no interest in the art photography movement that already was well established when he began to work in the medium, seeking instead to make the expressive power of light and shadow as defined by the silver salts evoke resonances beyond the merely descriptive.
Beyond supplying images to clients, Atget seems to have had an all-over design or intention for many of his projects. A voracious reader of 19th-century French literature, he sought to recreate the Paris of the past, photographing buildings and areas marked for demolition in the hope of preserving the ineffable imprint of time and usage on stone, iron, and vegetation. A series of tree and park images, made in the outlying sections to the south of Paris, suggest a compulsion to preserve natural environments from the destruction already visible in the industrialized northern districts of the city, and, in the same way, images of working individuals may have been made to record distinctive trades before the changes in social and economic relationships already taking place swept them away.
In the manner of a cinematic director, Atget made close-ups, long shots, details, views from different angles, in different fights, at different times, almost as though in his mind he were challenging time by creating an immutable world in two dimensions. The vast number of images - perhaps 10,000 - of storefronts, doorways, arcades, vistas, public spaces, and private gardens, of crowds in the street and workers pursuing daily activities - of just about everything but upper-class life - evoke a Paris that appears as part legend, part dream, yet profoundly real.
During the 1920s, the extent and expressive qualities of Atget's work were unknown to all but a small group of friends and avant-garde artists, among them Man Ray, who arranged for several works to be reproduced in La Revolution Surrealîste in 1926. Atget's final year, made especially difficult by the death of a longtime companion as well as by his insecure financial situation, brought him into contact with Berenice Abbott, at the time Man Ray's technical assistant. After Atget's death in August, 1927, Abbott was able to raise funds to purchase the photographer's negatives and prints and thus bring his work to the attention of American photographers and collectors when she returned to the United States in 1929. In 1968 this vast but still uncataloged collection was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, which has since started to display and publish Atget's exceptional images.
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