Eugene Atget – documenting Paris

Eugene Atget is probably, along with Robert Doisneau, one of Paris’ most legendary photographers who have been instrumental in documenting a city that has long passed.  He was born in 1857 in Libourne in south west France and died in Paris in 1927.  He was orphaned at the age of five and then had a varied career as a sailor in the Merchant Navy, an actor, a painter before settling on photography.

Berenice Abbot took this picture of Atget in 1927.  When she returned to give him some copies, he had died.

It’s fair to say that he was somewhat obsessive about documenting the city in all its glory, its refined side, its poorer side and its seamier side.  Over his lifetime, he made around ten thousand negatives, using an old fashioned, even for that time, camera and tripod, that probably weighed between ten and fifteen kilos.  Despite his earlier careers as an actor and a painter, he didn’t consider himself to be an artist with the camera.  Maybe, photography had not yet developed its reputation for being an artistic medium.  He was a documenter of Paris and what his photographs were documents.

This idea of his role as a simple documenter of Paris is also, perhaps, reflected in his attitude to the world of photography.  Although he was paid for his work, it would be hard to describe him as a professional, certainly in the modern sense.  He didn’t change or develop his equipment, he didn’t seek new methods or approaches and he didn’t really mix with other photographers.

He obviously didn’t see a need and it’s easy to see why.  His photographs are crisp, clear and carry with them an assured control of his tools and medium.  The pictures are engrossing and fascinating and it’s interesting to see, at times, just how little Paris has changed.

His photographs of buildings and places are often unpopulated and this gives them a ghostly air.  Just where have all of the people gone?  It is as though the city is empty when, obviously, it was bustling, lively and very full of people.

Cour, 41 rue Broca, 1912

On the other hand, he was just an interested in the people of Paris, particularly the tradesmen, salesmen, ragpickers, prostitutes and vagabonds.  Although we like to think of Western Europe to be beyond these things now, there are huge numbers of people living and begging in the streets and there are little shanty town enclaves on the edges of the city.  The photographs are very honest and empathetic.  There is little voyeurism here.

Maison à Versailles, 1921.  This is a brothel.  Brothels were legal but they weren’t allowed a sign so they signified their purpose by making the building number really big.

Ragpickers, Porte d’Asnières, Cité Valmy 1913

Although Atget wasn’t much interested in the art of his trade, the famous artists of the 1920s became very interested in his work.  Man Ray used his photograph of an eclipse being viewed from the Place de la Bastille in issue 7 of the surrealist magazine La Révolution Surréaliste and titled it “The Latest Conversions”.  Although the surrealists liked Atget’s work, it’s not clear whether he was that bothered about anything than being paid for his photographs.  He wasn’t interested in being credited for his work either.  Why would he be?  These were mere documents.

It was at about this time that Atget’s wife died and a contemporary describes that his mind began to wander, he began to drink and then he died, aged 70 on August 4th, 1927.

The exhibition of Atget’s work is at the Musée Carnavalet until July 29th.

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