I’ve always known Eugene Atget as the early-time (that’s an official historic period) photographer who took pictures of buildings in Paris. The Paris guy. But since I’ve never been particularly drawn to that early-time aesthetic, I had not dug much deeper.
But as I was looking through the required reading (which I completed) and suggested reading (which I decided to sample from) list from class 3 of the MoMA Coursera lessons, I saw that my boyfriend, John Szarkowski, had written an Atget piece. I read it so I would be able to flatter and impress him if I am ever in one of those situations where you can select a handful of people, living or dead, to invite to a dinner party. I also did a little extra research, because hey, it’s Scholarship Tuesday.
Ok, quick summary - things were changing in photography in the early 1900s (early-time). The dry plate was invented, and people could purchase chemicals and supplies instead of cooking them up. So photographers could shoot more images and be more mobile. The barrier to entry was lower, so more people could make photos, and since it was easier and less time-consuming to create an image, any subject matter became fair game. Seems the whole “photography is going to be ruined by amateurs” (aka, the digital vs. film debate) goes way back.
Atget was a private, nearly reclusive guy who didn’t really consider himself a photographer. He supported himself by selling photographs to painters to use as studies. Over time, you can see that he takes more and more images for himself, in his own, evolving style. Most photographers of that time tried to describe a subject as clearly and precisely as possible. Atget seemed more interested in capturing moments, which is why he could return to the same subjects and places over and over and experience and capture something new.
In 1898 he began a 30-year endeavor to create “documents” of architecture and urban views of a changing Paris. He photographed storefronts and public spaces that were demolished soon after to make way for rapid urbanization. He aimed to create a visual record of a vanishing world.
He used a view camera, and the long exposures made the images wispy with a drawn-out sense of light. He took a mostly wide view that suggested atmosphere more than surface detail. He had a poetic sensibility.
Bernice Abbott (who received half of his archive when he died and devoted herself to promoting him) said, “He will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization.” While not untrue, this seems like a bold and grand statement for a man who never called himself a photographer.
A close friend of mine is enamored with Atget, and when I was scholarshipping, I asked him what he loves about Atget’s images. He said that Atget never intended to be an artist, and yet he couldn’t help himself. His images ooze (my word, not his - he would never say “ooze”) melancholy, as Old paris was disappearing before his eyes. He was ahead of his time and the perfect mix of commercial, documentary, and fine art photographer.
So all of this was communicated via text, so forgive my paraphrasing, but I think these are all beautiful reasons. But my favorite thing he said both in the beginning and end of this text exchange was this - Atget’s images are ghosts.
Ghosts! Damn, that’s good.