Eugène Atget’s Old Paris

Eugène Atget (12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927)

Eugène Atget (12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927)

On February 12, 1857, French photographer Eugène Atget was born. A pioneer of documentary photography, Atget is noted for his determination to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization. An inspiration for the surrealists and other artists, his genius was only recognized by a handful of young artists in the last two years of his life, and he did not live to see the wide acclaim his work would eventually receive.

Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget was born 12 February 1857 in Libourne, France, to Jean-Eugène Atget, a carriage builder who died in 1862, and to Clara-Adeline Atget née Hourlier, who died shortly after. His ancestors were saddlers and carriage-makers who had moved from Provence to the Dordogne River region after the Napoleonic Wars. Atget was brought up by his maternal grandparents in Bordeaux. After a short secondary school education, he embarked as a cabin boy on a lineboat and was, from 1875 to 1877, on a ship of the lines serving South America.

Atget moved to Paris in 1878. He failed the entrance exam for acting class but was admitted when he had a second try. Because he was drafted for military service he could attend class only part-time, and he was expelled from drama school.

Still living in Paris, he became an actor with a travelling group, performing in the Paris suburbs and the provinces. He met actress Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, who became his companion until her death. He gave up acting because of an infection of his vocal cords in 1887, moved to the provinces and took up painting without success. Atget took up photography in the late 1880s, around the time that photography was experiencing unprecedented expansion in both commercial and amateur fields. His first photographs, of Amiens and Beauvais, date from 1888.

Atget had quickly understood that painters, architects and craftsmen needed documentation, so he turned to photography. He began to photograph landscapes, trees and plants, with the intention of collecting a documentary collection for painters. Around 1897, he embarked on a “systematic” photography business in Paris. Its clientele was changing: Atget was now primarily aimed at lovers of Parisian history and cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, etc. These institutions by then were gathering important documentary photographic collections, notably on the monuments of Paris and would buy thousands of photographs from the photographer. Also among his principal customers were the architects and artisans who wanted examples of old architectural models as well as the amateurs of the ancient city who deplored the modernization projects of Napoleon III and his agent, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann [4], who had razed and rebuilt much of Paris during the last half of the 19th century. Atget also sold his pictures to illustrators and independent painters, but these sales represented only a minor part of his income.

Eugène Atget, Organ Grinder (1898)

Eugène Atget, Organ Grinder (1898)

Atget photographed Paris with a large-format wooden bellows camera with a rapid rectilinear lens. The images were exposed and developed as 18x24cm glass dry plates. Between 1897 and 1927 Atget captured the old Paris in his pictures. 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 before World War II, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. He photographed stairwells and architectural details on the façades and took pictures of the interiors of apartments. His interest also extended to the environs of Paris. 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.

On his business card from this period Atget described himself as the “Creator and Purveyor of a Collection of Photograph Views of Old Paris”; on other occasions he identified himself as “auteur éditeur.” He tried to avoid working on commission—as a photographer for hire—and even more rarely was he willing to sell his negatives.[3] The government purchased, for the sum of 10,000 francs, over 2,600 of Atget’s plates to deposit in the national historic registry.

For whatever reason, Atget’s photographs of what would seem the most dryly routine of subjects—doors, door knockers, stairways, balustrades—are seen with such economy and intelligence, and with such a bold grasp of the possibilities of photographic description, that the pictures give pleasure both to the viewer’s mind and eyes. Among the qualities that characterize Atget’s work are the rapid foreshortening produced by wide-angle lenses; frequent truncating of the nominal subject in exchange for a more intimate vantage point; and a willingness to work in a wide variety of lighting conditions, even (especially during the last five years of his life) shooting almost directly into the sun, a practice that was religiously avoided by conventional photographers.[3]

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.

Eugène Atget, People watching the solar eclipse of 1912

Eugène Atget, People watching the solar eclipse of 1912

Atget’s photographs attracted the attention of artists such as Man Ray [5], André Derain, Henri Matisse [6] and Picasso [7] in the 1920s. Man 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 Atget 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 was a neighbor of Atget — they lived on the same street—and offered to lend him his modern camera, but Atget refused the offer, preferring to use the older techniques.

His death on August 4, 1927, went largely unnoticed at the time outside the circle of curators who had bought his albums and kept them interred, mostly unseen. His remaining archive was split. 2000 negatives were donated to a Paris institute, with the remainder bought by Berenice Abbott with financial support by Julien Levy.

“He will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization.”
— Berenice Abbott

References and Further Reading:

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