top of page

Eugene Atget

 

La Révolution surréaliste

 

Eugene Arget was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux in France, in 1857. At the age of seven, he was orphaned and raised by his uncle. After finishing his education in the 1870s, he worked as a sailor and then as a cabin boy on liners in the Transatlantic passage.

 

He had a variety of professions. One of his passions was acting. Although he took this very seriously, he never achieved any success on stage.

 

At the age of forty, he quit acting and experimented for a while with painting. By the mid-1890s -1890 Arget settled in Paris and took up photography. He used photography as a source of making a living - an income. Selling his photographs to artists in the nearby town of Montparnasse. Atget advertised his photographs as "documents for artists". Photographing models, which in turn was used by artists. 

 

Arget received no formal training or schooling in photography. He had a natural talent for capturing a visual representation of his environment and society and of French culture. His images were pure and intense, unabated by what they stood for and represented. He retained a Bohemian affection for the working class and worried about the petty tradesmen and merchants threatened by modernization and the rise of big Paris department stores.

 

He was not progressive but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic. Over a period of twenty years Artget produced, through photography, a systematic visual catalogue of Paris. He photographed its people their culture, lives, the city streets, buildings and parks.

 

To understand and increase his knowledge base of what he was capturing about his subject. Atget became an amateur urban and architectural historian. He followed the tradition of earlier French photographers like Charles Marville and Henri Le Secq. Atget used his camera to create images that preserved the city of Paris's historical past. His visual acumen not only served the purpose of documentation, but also of striking compositions that were characteristic of his work. Atget's work is unique on two levels. Firstly, he was a great photographer and created a spectacular visual catalogue of the fruits of French culture. Atget was in addition a photographer of such authority and originality that his work remains a benchmark against which much of the most sophisticated contemporary photography measures itself today. Most photographers had been concerned with describing specific facts (documentation), or with exploiting their self-expression. Atgets work encompassed and transcended both approaches for each task he set himself. Through his image, he went about understanding and interpreting in visual terms the natural architecture and culture of French society and its ancient traditions.

 

Atget photographed Paris with a large-format wooden bellows' camera with a rapid rectilinear lens. The images were developed and exposed as 18X24cm (7 x 9.4 inches) glass dry plates. Characteristics of Atget photography included a wispy, drawn-out sense of light due to a long exposure. An intentionally limited range of scenes involving people or the bustling mayhem of modern Paris. The blurred figures of people and the emptiness of the streets were partly due to his antiquated technique of long, extended exposure times.

 

Atget's commercial independence as a photographer allowed him greater visual freedom. His documentation projects were done on his own. He was commissioned or contracted by the city bureaus and the Carnavalet Museum to preserve and record landmarks in Paris. In Atget's day, Paris was already a modern metropolis, but this was not the Paris he photographed. Atget worked early in the morning to avoid the traffic and people, using the early morning light to capture the ethereal city. He gave his images a mythical dimension with their soft light and edges. There is hardly any people in his pictures, no Eiffel Tower, no modern industry.Atget showcased a more refined and delicate Paris. One that lies beneath or under the modern, bustling metropolis. A few of the places he photographed still exist today. But when re-photographed as has been done by Christopher Rauschenberg - they appear more hard-edged, higher in detail and depict the streets as mean and harsh.

 

Atget's photographs attracted the attention of well-known painters such as Man Ray, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the 1920s. American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) provided the key that unlocked Atget's Paris for the rest of the world. She got to know him in the 1920s when she was an assistant to Atget's Montparnasse neighbour, Man Ray. By 1899, he had moved to Montparnasse, where he lived and earned a modest income until he died in 1927.

 

After Atget's death, she arranged for New York's Museum of Modern Art to buy many of his prints and Atget soon became better known in the U.S. than in France

                  Eugene Atget

 

                                         By Eugene Struthers

bottom of page