Eugene Atget: Masters of Photography
|January 2, 2011||Posted by admin under Famous Photographers|
A man in his mid-thirties starts thinking about his career. After an early trip as a waiter at sea he had returned to study acting at one of the best schools. Somehow his career had never really taken off; while his friends had been more successful, he was getting only the minor parts in their tours of suburban theaters. Eugene Atget was forced to accept he was not really an actor, and search for other ways to make a living.
At first he tried painting, and also took up photography, perhaps as a source of material to paint. The artists he showed his paintings were not too encouraging, but he found that they were keen to use some of his pictures as sources for their own work. Soon he had found other groups who wanted the clear and straightforward records he was producing, mainly of the buildings of Paris where he lived; designers, decorators, museums and members of societies interested in Old Paris.
For the next 30 years until his death in 1927 he made a living by providing ‘documents for artists’ and others. And at least until the first World War (1914-8) destroyed much of his market, it was a reasonable living. Several museums in Paris, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London are among those who have extensive collections bought directly from him. Over time he expanded the materials he photographed to meet what he felt his clients might be interested in, one of the best known being a series on street traders, and occasionally he photographed on commission, for example in producing a series on prostitutes.
Outside the small circle of his friends and clients, Atget was not well known. He didn’t exhibit or publish his work and had little contact with photographic circles. Among the artists whose studios he visited in the 1920′s to sell his ‘documents’ were those of some of the Surrealists, among them the American artist, Man Ray, who lived just down the street. Many of the Surrealists appreciated his pictures, in particular the often inconsequential details which he recorded, as well as their lack of conscious ‘artiness’.
One picture – appropriate to mention at the moment at least in Europe – showed Parisians in a square holding up sheets of darkened glass to view a solar eclipse, they wished to use on the cover of their magazine, the Surrealist Review. Atget was not pleased, probably not wanting to be associated with what he probably regarded as odd-balls, but was persuaded to allow its use.
Man Ray also needed to make a living, and had also turned to photography. For this he needed to employ an assistant and engaged a young woman from New York, Berenice Abbott. She saw Atget’s work and visited him at his studio, getting to know him better, and also took his portrait. Going up one day to see him she found that he had died, and met his friend – the executor of his will – who had already disposed of some of Atget’s prints to the Paris museums, but was left with a large number of prints and glass plate negatives. Abbott offered to buy these, and took them back with her to the USA, where they eventually formed part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Abbott’s book, The World of Atget, based on these prints, made his work available to a wider audience, particularly to American photographers, and he became one of the most widely quoted influences on them. Further publications in the 1970′s and 80′s widened interest, reawakening the French to an important part of their cultural heritage, some of which is now available online .
What is it about Atget’s work that still arouses interest?
Certainly not techniques – he worked simply, even primitively, in the manner of the 1890′s until his death, using a plate camera on a tripod and contact printing using Aristotype printing out paper, normally gold-toned. By the 1920′s his methods would certainly have been regarded as obsolete by photographers, who were using much faster and more convenient materials.
The slightly wide-angle lens that he used was, by modern standards, pathetic although its sharpness was adequate for contact printing. When he photographed tall buildings, he kept the camera level and used the camera’s rising front in order to keep the vertical lines vertical in the print. The image circle of his lens was not great enough to allow this, resulting in a curved top to the picture by lens vignetting, or, in less extreme cases, of softness in the corners.
Atget saw himself as an artisan – a skilled worker – rather than as an artist. He was also a socialist and a rationalist. The photograph was a problem to be solved, not an occasion for either the self-expression of the pictorialist or the careful following of conventions of the commercial photographer. Atget confronted the motif afresh and without many of the preconceptions that other photographers took for granted. As a part of his approach, it was not important that some ‘mistakes’ intruded – such as the vignetting, or the halation when the form of the subject demanded that he shoot into the light in some of his splendid pictures at the Park de Sceaux, or the reflections of himself and his camera in a mirror or cafe doorway. The ghostly figures of waiters walking in some of the cafe pictures, or the curious reflections in shop windows were not a part of any plan, but an acceptance of how the medium worked.
Atget has been called ‘the first modern photographer, and his approach was appreciated by and possibly influenced many photographers who were seen as a part of the ‘modern movement’ including such figures as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. One later photographer whose work picks up some of these ‘mistakes’ clearly – and also explicitly acknowledged the influence of Atget is perhaps the pre-eminent US photographer of the last third of the century, Lee Friedlander.
Le Moulin de la Galette, Paris, Montmartre 1900
Eugene Atget and the Stillness of Paris
Images of Paris by Eugene Atget set to the music of Duke Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’.
Books and other resources
Atget: Paris in Detail
The works of French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927) can be considered as prototypes for some of the great aesthetic movements (cubism, surrealism, conceptualism) that continue to influence modern and contemporary art. His detailed visual record of Paris and its environs were sold to painters to use as source material, and later to institutions dedicated to the preservation of the city’s past. The Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs in Paris acquired nearly 1800 poetic images of decorative details such as boiseries, door knockers, staircase balustrades, garden ornaments, and magnificent plaster work from Atget’s studio.
The selection of more than 300 works exquisitely reproduced in this volume were chosen not only for their documentary record of the decorative splendors of Paris, but also for their concentration on the subtleties of form and their stunning aesthetic power. Atget’s continued use of a large format view camera and glass plate negatives, allowed for bigger negatives that resulted in fine details and richly toned images. His encyclopedic purpose and the simplicity of his method are so timeless that his work still fascinates today. The poetic impassivity of the images, the detailed beauty of their subjects, and the simple juxtaposition of their proportions will be an inspiration to all those interested in design and the decorative arts as well as those interested in the history of photography.
Eugéne and Berenice – Pioneers of Urban Photography
This documentary film examines the work of both artists, juxtaposing Atget’s Paris oeuvre with Abbott’s views of New York, describing how their paths crossed amidst the Parisian avant-garde, shedding light on their unlikely connection to the surrealists, and helping viewers understand the aesthetic and personal bond they shared. Rare archival interview footage featuring Berenice Abbott is included, along with commentary from photographers and artists working today.
Atget’s Gardens: A Selection of Eugene Atget’s Garden Photographs
Eugene Atget (Aperture Masters of Photography)
With the marvelous lens of dream and surprise, Atget ‘saw’ (that is to say, photographed) practically everything about him, in and outside of Paris, with the vision of a poet.” Berenice Abbott