Eugène Atget


Eugène Atget

Eugène Atget (1857 ‑ 1927) was a French photographer noted for his photographs documenting the architecture and street scenes of Paris.

Personal life

Born outside the French city of Bordeaux, he was orphaned at seven and raised by his uncle. In the 1870s, after finishing his education, Atget briefly became a sailor and cabin boy on liners in the Transatlantic. After shipping on several voyages, Atget became an actor, more specifically, a bit player, for a second-rate repertory company, but without much success.

He retained his bohemian affection for the working person and worried about the petty tradespeople and merchants threatened by modernization and the rise of big Paris department stores. He was said to be short-tempered and eccentric and in his 50s stopped eating anything except bread, milk and sugar. He and his wife, Valentine, a former actress, associated with some of Paris' leading dramatists - though he left behind no known portraits of friends or associates.

His death went largely unnoticed at the time outside the circle of curators who had bought his albums and kept them interred, mostly unseen. Atget would likely have been indifferent to his relative obscurity, given his preference for work over fame. "This enormous artistic and documentary collection is now finished," he wrote of his life's work in 1920, though he kept on shooting photographs for years after.

Photography career

Atget finally settled in Paris in the 1890s. Despite Atget's limited background in the visual arts, he saw photography as a source of income, selling his photographs to artists in the nearby town of Montparnasse. He advertised his photographs as "documents for artists." It was common practice at the time for painters to paint scenes from photographs. By the mid-1890s, Atget bought his first camera and began to photograph more than 10,000 images of the people and sights of the French capital. By 1899, he had moved to Montparnasse, where he lived and earned a modest income until his death in 1927.

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. Besides supplying fellow artists, architects, publishers and interior decorators with his photographs of a dream-like Paris, he was also commissioned by city Bureaus and the Carnavalet Museum to preserve and record landmarks in France's capital city.

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 (this is one of the features of bellows view cameras)--this is a way to correct perspective and control the image. Under the dark cloth, Atget surely knew the effect of these corners and accepted or preferred them. In fact, one of the key qualities of Atget's work compared to that of many other similar documentary photographers of that city, is his savvy avoidance of perfection, that cold symmetry and clear stasis that photography is so naturally good at. He approaches his subjects with a humanism that is palpable once noticed, and you become an observer and appreciator with him in his meanderings. He often said, "I have done little justice to the Great City of Paris," as a comment on his career.

Atget's photographs attracted the attention of well-known painters such as Man Ray, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse and Picasso in the 1920s.

Berenice Abbott was 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 neighbor Man Ray. She attempted to help Atget achieve greater recognition during his lifetime by sending friends to purchase his work and by making a celebrity-style photographic portrait of him. After Atget's death in 1927, she acquired a large part of his archive and exhibited, printed and wrote about his work, as well as assembled a substantial archive of writings about his portfolio by herself and others. In 1968, Abbott arranged for New York's Museum of Modern Art to buy this archive, and through a series of MoMA exhibitions and publications Atget finally entered the pantheon of "Masters" of photography. [.See Peter Barr's PhD dissertation "Becoming Documentary: Berenice Abbott's Photographs 1925-1939" (Boston University, 1997). See also: "Berenice Abbott & Eugène Atget" by Clark Worswick.]

Abbott, as a result of all this, is given much credit for the recognition that Atget's photographs have received in the contemporary photographic world. Abbott partnered with the American Julien Levy to raise the money to acquire 1,500 of Atget's negatives and 8,000 of his prints. As noted above, she spent the 40 years promoting his work in America, elevating it to recognition as "art", beyond its original reputation as documentation.

Legacy

The Museum of Modern Art purchased Abbott's collection of Atget's work in 1968, and now has some 5,000 of his prints and negatives in its possession. Abbott wrote of Atget: "He was an urbanist historian, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization." In 1981, MoMA completed publication of a four-volume series of books based on its four successive exhibitions about Atget's life and work.

'Atget, a Retrospective' was presented at the Bibliotheque Nationale in 2007

Better-known photographs

*"Organ Grinder", (1898)
*"Cabaret, Rue Mouffetard", (1900)
*"Au Tambour, 63 quai de la Tournelle", (1908)
*"Le Quai, I'lle de la Cite", (1925)

Books

*"The World of Atget", 1964.
*"Atget's Gardens: A Selection of Eugene Atget's Garden Photographs", 1979.
*"The Work of Atget", 4 vols., 1981-85.
*"Eugene Atget: A Selection of Photographs from the Collection of Musee Carnavalet, Paris", 1985.
*"Eugene Atget: Paris", 1998.

References

Bibliography

*Badger, Gerry. “Eugene Atget: A Vision of Paris.” British Journal of Photography 123, no 6039 (Apr. 23, 1976): 344-347.
*Barbin, Pierre. Colloque Atget (Paris: College de France, 1986).
*Buerger, Janet E. The Era of the French Calotype (New York: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1982).
*Buisine, Alain. Eugene Atget ou la melancolie en photographie (Nimes: Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 1994).
*Kozloff, Max. “Abandoned and Seductive: Atget’s Streets.” The Privileged Eye: Essays on Photography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).
*Krase, Andreas. “Archive of Visions – Inventory of Things: Eugene Atget’s Paris.”
*Paris: Eugene Atget: 1857-1927 (Paris: Taschen, 2000).
*Leroy, Jean. Atget: Magicien du vieux Paris en son époque (Paris: P.A.V., 1992).
*Nesbit, Molly. Atget’s Seven Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
*Reynaud, Francoise. Les voitures d’Atget au musee Carnavalet (Paris: Editions Carre, 1991).
*Rice, Shelley. Parisian Views (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).
*Szarkowski, John. Atget (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2000).
*Szarkowski, John and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget: Volume 1, Old France (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
*Szarkowski, John and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget: Volume 2, The Art of Old Paris (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
*Szarkowski, John and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget: Volume 3, The Ancien Regime (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
*Szarkowski, John and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget: Volume 4, Modern Times (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
*Wiegand, Wilfred. Introduction to Paris, by Eugene Atget. (New York: te Neues Publishing, 1998).

External links

* [http://www.geh.org/fm/atget/htmlsrc/ATGET_SLD00001.HTML Atget collection at George Eastman House]
* [http://www.gingkopress.com/_cata/ima1/atget-i1.htm Seven Atget photographs]
* [http://robertgiraud.blog.lemonde.fr/ Eugène Atget et Robert Giraud (in french)]
* [http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase_descrp.php/8/1/1/0 Eugene Atget and Haunted Paris: Trees, Parks and Architecture]
* cite web |publisher= Victoria and Albert Museum
url= http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/photography/past_exhns/atget/index.html
title= Eugène Atget: Unintentional Surrealist?
work=Photography
accessdate= 2007-08-25

* [http://www.lensculture.com/rauschenberg.html Rauschenberg rephotographs] , a project to reconstruct some of Atget's photographs nearly 100 years later


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