Eugene Atget photographed Paris for thirty years. With a singleness
of purpose rarely excelled, he made his incredible monument to
a city. When he died in 1927 he left approximately 2000 eight
by ten inches glass plates and almost 10,000 prints, not counting
the plates deposited in the Palais Royale archives. Here is one
of the most extraordinary achievements of photography. Yet we
know almost nothing of Atget as a person and less of Atget as
a photographer. His history is to be read in his work.
Eugene Atget Life: Atget was born in Bordeaux in 1856.
An orphan, he was brought up by an uncle. At an early age he shipped
to sea as cabin boy. Doubtless his early experiences made a deep
impression and enriched his vision of the world, for in later
years he vividly recited to friends amusing anecdotes of this
period. Early in his life his faculties of observation were sharpened
As a young man, he turned to the stage, first in the French provincial
cities then in the suburbs of Paris. His physique fitted him only
for the less attractive roles usually the villains part.
As maturity approached, acting became an unrewarding occupation.
To what should he turn? He had a lively liking for painting and
associated a great deal with painters. He considered being one
of them and indeed tried his hand at painting, a number of examples
of his own brushwork were found at his studio upon his death.
Finally he decided to be a photographer, an art photographer.
He already had an ambition to create a collection of all that
was artistic and picturesque in Paris and its surroundings. An
immense subject. Atget obtained equipment and with a sack full
of plates on his back "started off." Thus began a vast
esthetic documentation, a labor of love for thirty years.
It is necessary to qualify the meaning of "art photographer"
as well as "aesthetic" documentation, since these terms
mean different things to different people. Never was Atget "arty."
His art stems from his grasping of the photographic medium without
confusion or imitation of painting. His vision, backed by heart
and brain, mature sensitivity and above all selectivity was well
synthesized and projected for the beholder to understand and thereby
to be enriched. Maturity, in this case, was not a handicap but
a powerful ingredient.
Armed with the experience of travel, observation, and drama,
Atget photographed the monuments of Paris, houses, sites, chateaux,
streets, subjects about to disappear. Photography was no more
materially rewarding than acting. Nevertheless he persevered,
lugging his unwieldy view camera and heavy glass plates. One day
Luc-Olivier-Merson bought a print for fifteen francs. Atget rejoiced
and was encouraged. The playwright Victorien Sardou became interested
in his work and put him on the track of vanishing Paris. Before
the World War of 1914-1918, Atget was gradually winning recognition
and financial support.
But the war broke out "the second that Atget had seen. He
had a horror of it, he loved his work so much." People thought
he was a spy or lunatic. He no longer sold anything when there
was peace again, he was an old man. He produced less and less,
lived, as it were, on his capital of old work. The archives of
the Palais Royale acquired some of his plates, but at low prices
and purely for their record value. So Atgets life moved
to its close: In 1927 he died, without public recognition or understanding
of the vast importance of his work.
Atgets Photography: Atget assigned himself an alluring
and provoking subject, the city of Paris, the dream city of thousands
of struggling, aspiring, gifted and would-be poets, painters,
composers. Paris, the city of art and bridges over the Seine,
of boulevards and cafes, of narrow, crooked streets and gray plane
trees in the beautiful Luxembourg gardens.
To Atget, Paris was not a dream but an actuality a fact of hard
material expressions, of strange contrasts and contradictions.
It was weathered, eroded facades of mansion and humble dwelling;
ornate construction of wrought iron grilles and balconies; fantasy
of shop signs and carousels; visible magic of rich grapes, cherries,
cauliflowers, lobsters, heaped in luxuriance in Les Halles;
formal elegance of Versailles and the Trianon; rustic primitiveness
of a plow lying in furrows outside the fortifications; outmoded
forms of carriage and horse-drawn cabriolet; excitement of an
eclipse seen by crowds in the Place de lOpera; a thousand
and yet another thousand images of the miracle of daily reality.
In recreating Paris for us and for all time, Atget gave it permanent
reality by utilizing photography in its own right. He did not
veer toward excessive concern with technique nor toward the imitation
of painting but steered a straight course, making the medium speak
for itself in a superb rendering of materials, textures, surfaces,
details. Within the limits of his equipment, he recorded all phases
of the life about him: people, street activity, the city proper.
Atgets Equipment: The photographs reveal Atgets
method of work. His equipment consisted of a simple 18 X 24 cm
view camera, with almost none of the present-day adjustments.
It had a rising front, as may be seen by the photographs, many
of whose corners have been cut off because the lens did not give
full coverage. He had no wide-angle lens. The focal length of
his lens is unknown, but it must have been between eleven and
twelve inches. Atget used glass plates. As for accessories, he
certainly did not use an exposure meter. At most he made use of
a simple coefficient table with mathematical calculations. But
it is more likely that he judged exposure by his vast experience
with light conditions, subject matter, and type of plate emulsion.
Because the emulsion used then were non-color-sensitive, he never
used filters. For interior work, he used no artificial light of
any sort but availed himself always of natural light. Any shutter
used with the lens was at most a simple bulb shutter. Atget made
a practice of closing down to a small aperture if conditions permitted.
Only when he photographed people did he open up the diaphragm
and focus critically on the center of interest, leaving the background
out of focus. It is doubtful if his lens could have been faster
than 1/11 at its widest opening. It would seem from the photographs
themselves that most of them were taken during the summer months
when the suns actinic rays are stronger. Also most of the
human figures of these series are posed to the extent that Atget
probably asked them "to hold still a moment."
Because he did not have the advantage of fast lenses and fast
emulsions, Atget had to solve his photographic problems within
the capacities of his materials. Since his equipment and materials
were not adequate to stop fast action, he worked a great deal
in the early hours of the day, rising at dawn.
Atgets photographs are the supreme proof that photography
is more than a "machine." Except for the complex factors
of stopping motion, Atget found no obstacle to making his photographs
an extremely expressive comment on life. Not the camera, but Atget
himself dictated what would be set down in these beautiful prints.
The intensity of his purpose and vision was the powerful drive
which compelled him to undergo long years of neglect and hard
work. At the same time he accepted the tremendous labor of his
method, carrying the cumbersome view camera many miles, weighed
down by bulky glass plates. For him the camera was but an instrument
for expressing his intense awareness of life.
In personal matters Atget was, if not an eccentric was uncompromising.
From the age of 50, he lived solely on milk, bread, and pieces
of sugar. He was absolute in hygiene and in art. This determination
when applied to photography created a unique monument.
More on Eugene Atget:
Eastman House - Eugene Atget Collection
Extensive Gallery of Eugene Aget's Photography