Purporting to make photographs not as art, but as documentary aids to artists, Eugène Atget left this world with an oeuvre that captured the transformation of Paris at the turn of the last century. Although Atget is now heralded as a canonical figures in the history of photography, his humble beginnings and methodologies during his photographic career attest to his simple desire to record his city as he knew it.
Born in 1857, in Libourne near Bordeaux and raised by his uncle, Atget’s youth was molded by his time as a sailor. Upon his return from the sea, Atget turned to the stage and pursued an acting career in provincial cities and later in Paris suburbs. After minor success as an actor, Atget abandoned the stage and at the age of forty took up painting, then quickly turned to his true life’s work as a photographer. For the next thirty years, until just a few short months before his death in 1927, Atget undertook a systematic documentation of the city of Paris, creating approximately five thousand negatives and nearly ten thousand prints.
Because he refused to work with the latest advances in photographic technology, Atget’s images evoke a sense of timelessness, due in part to the slower exposure times and the pre-visualization of the final image that was required. Atget produced glass plate negatives, using an 18 x 24 cm. view camera that was fitted with a brass rectilinear lens and had no shutter. Rather, Atget would simply remove the cap from the lens and capture the scene before him, allowing any motion to appear as a blur. Atget carried this large camera around Paris as he worked to document its essential elements: streets, shop windows, building facades, architectural details, and the landscape of the public gardens and parks in and around the city.
Atget’s unique documentation of the French capital captured the eye of surrealist photographer Man Ray who worked to promote Atget as one of the pre-eminent photographic modernists. Later, the efforts of Berenice Abbott, who acquired Atget’s negatives and prints after his death, finally situated Atget’s work in the history of photography where it continues to gain in stature and influence.
[Click to view photographs by Eugène Atget – a set on Flickr]
The best way to view these photos is to click on the slideshow option, and be transported.
His photographs really blazed the trail that I (in my humble fashion) and so many of my Flickr compatriots follow: taking photographs of the city we live in, warts and all. Photos of strangers on the street, of shop windows, of public art, signs – all of these are subjects I revist over and over.Footnotes:
- no known copyright restrictions [↩]