Eugène Atget – photographer extraordinaire

Paris in 1900 was witness to a veritable craze for photography. The city recently renovated by Georges-Eugène Haussmann included the now completed Eiffel Tower. It was the tallest structure in the world, with 7,000 tons of steel and 2,500 rivets, and Parisians delighted in photographing it for their family albums. Yet, one man never wanted to photograph it. 

There were many chroniclers of Paris in images. The writer Emile Zola was captivated by photography and for him it was a passion. By 1888 Zola had eight cameras and two dark rooms and in the course of the next decade took some 7,000 pictures. Despite his enthusiasm, he was not concerned with the artistic aspects of photography, nor with the controversies it raised. Instead, he concentrated on photos of his family, daily life, and his favourite places for walking: the Tuileries gardens and the banks of the River Seine.

In contrast, Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was one of the first photographers to see Paris as a lieu de mémoire (sociologist Pierre Nora’s concept of a “site of memory”). Atget arrived in the city from Bordeaux in 1896 at the age of 40. Two years later he decided to devote himself to photography. His writings on the subject indicate that right from the start he wanted to collect images of everything he thought “artistic or picturesque in and around Paris.”

Over the next 20 years, Atget assembled one of the most outstanding collections in the history of photography and covered (in the journalistic sense) the transition of Paris from the 19th to the 20th century. His photos include Parisian landscapes, façades, and shopkeepers, whose way of life was about to disappear. Atget benefitted from the technological innovation of dry-plates, which meant he could take the same pictures over and over from different angles and under different lighting. In this he resembled (and may have learned from) the great impressionist painter Monet, whose series of paintings of Rouen cathedral and haystacks reveal subtleties of mood and shadow.

Atget seemed instinctively to understand the evocative power of the photographic image. Nothing is superfluous neither in close-up nor when taken from a distance. He photographed monuments and houses at different stages of their construction or destruction, avoiding contemporary motifs, which gives his work an aura of timelessness. So, he never photographed the Eiffel Tower, preferring to depict the inner life of Paris.

In 1981 a four-volume edition of The Work of Atget was published by the Gordon Fraser Gallery (London) in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art (New York). The Museum owns a wonderful collection of Atget photos assembled by the American photographer Bernice Abbott. The four volumes are titled Old France, The Art of Old Paris, The Ancien Régime, and Modern Times. They are well worth seeking out.

Another great photographer, Ansel Adams (1902-84), writing in 1931, said: “The charm of Atget lies not in the mastery of the plates and papers of his time, nor in the quaintness of costume, architecture and humanity as revealed in his pictures, but in his equitable and intimate point of view… The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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