“A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.” -Eugene Atget
When photography was barely 25 years old, Eugène Atget started photographing views of Paris, France that evolved into an over ten thousand image portrait of the city. For close to 40 years, Atget photographed the city as it moved from an older time into becoming the modern city ozf today. His career crossed from the 19th century and well into the 20th.
Photography advances in the 1880s
Dry plates were introduced and fueled a lot of growth in amateur and professional photographers alike. Dry plates freed them from having to carry a darkroom on location to coat glass plates with wet emulsion. These plates had to be exposed while wet and developed immediately.
Dry plates meant they could be coated in advance then developed later in a darkroom making location photography practical. Photomechanical reproduction of images made photographs available to more and more people.
Documents pour artistes
Eugène Atget started his career around 1890 opening his studio with a sign proclaiming “Documents pour artistes” (documents for artists.) He intended to provide artists with photographs to use as references for their own works. A friend explained in the journal Revue des Beaux-Arts that he offered photos in genres like “landscapes, animals, flowers, monuments, documents, foregrounds for painters and reproductions of paintings.”
Atget used a view camera that recorded photographs on fragile glass plates almost 8-by-10 inches in size.
By 1900, a lot of the city’s urban areas were being updated by a renewal program, Haussmannization, after Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, had the old, medieval neighborhoods torn down and replaced with parks and very wide streets. This urban renewal saw a new interest in Vieux Paris (Old Paris) the way it was in the 1700s.
Atget’s work that was focused on Old Paris as a documentation and reference for artists became seriously popular. Atget reinvented himself as an expert purveyor of pictures of Paris. According to his biography on the Museum of Modern Art website, “his calling card from the period read, ‘E. Atget, Creator and Purveyor of a ‘Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris.’”
Atget’s documentary legacy
Atget’s visionary work has held the interest of artists and historians to this day. During the 1920s surrealist artists used his photographs of abandoned streets, of street life and those of stairways, shop windows and other images that they found inspirational. A book with a group watching an eclipse as its cover, La Révolution surréaliste published in 1926 was a compendium of photos the artists mined for elements of their art. The book also influenced two generations of American photographers like Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander.
MoMA continued Atget’s legacy by purchasing everything in his studio from Bernice Abbott. Abbott had seen Atget’s work in 1925 during the time she worked for Man Ray as his assistant. Later she would preserve his collection of glass plate negatives and 5,000 prints. This collection is the most complete one in the world.
Ansel Adams said in 1931 four years after Atget’s death, “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.”
More stories of inspirational photographers are in On Photography.