Atget is a name I know a little better than some of the other I talk about each week – I went to see an exhibition of his prints that were brought together in the Sydney Art Gallery. There were quite a few of them, all original prints and I have to say I was quite impressed. The subject matter is fairly consistent and some of the images will always be more appealing than others – but you can tell by the detail caught in each one that they have been contact printed instead of enlarged. The ragpicker / small trade images I found most impressive as he managed not only to create a technically sound image with then already outdated resources, but also the convey a compelling image of a trade that was fast on it’s way out in times of modernization. Should you be able to catch an exhibit of his work near you: make sure to attend!
Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget was born 12 February 1857 in Libourne, in the South-West of France. His father, carriage builder Jean-Eugène Atget, died in 1862, and his mother, Clara-Adeline Atget née Hourlier died shortly after. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents in Bordeaux. He went to Paris in 1878 where Atget meant to become an actor, but his studies at the National Conversatory of Music and Drama were cut short when he was drafted into the army in November 1878. After the war, they refused to have him back and for most of the 1880s he worked as an actor in the suburbs and in the provinces before taking up photography in 1888. He became a photographer for artists, producing images on the street and small trades of Paris that artists might be able to use for their paintings: ‘Documents pour Artistes’. He would photograph more than 10,000 images of the people and sights of Paris with a large-format Wooden bellow camera with a rapid rectilinear lens. The images were exposed and developed as 18x24cm glass dry plates.
Starting 1898 institutions such as the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris bought his photographs. The latter commissioned him ca. 1906 to systematically photograph old buildings in Paris. His photographs show the city in its various facets: narrow lanes and courtyards in the historic city center with its old buildings, of which some were soon to be demolished, magnificent palaces from the period before the French Revolution, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. He photographed stairwells and architectural details on the facades and took pictures of the interiors of apartments. In addition to architecture and the urban environment, he also photographed street-hawkers, small tradesmen, rag collectors and prostitutes, as well as fairs and popular amusements in the various districts. The outlying districts and peripheral areas, in which the poor and homeless sought shelter, also furnished him with pictorial subjects.
Distinguishing characteristics of Atget’s photography include a wispy, drawn-out sense of light due to his long exposures, a fairly wide view that suggested space and ambiance more than surface detail, and an intentionally limited range of scenes avoiding the bustling modern Paris that was often around the corner from the nostalgia-steeped nooks he preferred. The emptiness of most of his streets and the sometimes blurred figures in those with people are partly due to his already antiquated technique, including extended exposure times which required that many of his images be made in the early morning hours before pedestrians and traffic appeared. The mechanical vignetting often seen at some corners of his photographs is due to his having repositioned the lens relative to the plate on the camera—exploiting one of the features of bellows view cameras as a way to correct perspective and control the image. He often said, “I have done little justice to the Great City of Paris”, as a comment on his career.
In 1920-1921 he sold thousands of his negatives to institutions. Financially independent he took up photographing the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud and Sceaux and produced a series of photographs of prostitutes.
Berenice Abbott visited Atget in 1925, bought some of his photographs, and tried to interest other artists in his work such as Man Ray, André Derain, Henri Matisse and Picasso. May Ray not only purchased a number of Atget’s photographs but used During the Eclipse, for the cover of his surrealist magazine la Révolution surréaliste. When he asked Atget if he could use his photo he said:′ “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make.” Man Ray said that Atget’s pictures of staircases, doorways, ragpickers and especially those with window reflections and mannequins had a Dada or Surrealist quality about them. Man Ray not only was a neighbor of Atget, they lived on the same street, but he offered to led him his modern Rolleiflex camera but Atget refused preferring to use the older techniques.
His death went largely unnoticed at the time outside the circle of curators who had bought his albums and kept them interred, mostly unseen. Eugene Atget died on the 4th of August, 1927.
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