Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eugene Atget [1857-1927]

Eugène Atget (February 12, 1857 – August 4, 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 met and eventually married Valentine DeLafosse, an actress, with whom he spent the rest of his life.

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 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.
[edit] Photography career

Atget finally settled in Paris in the 1890s. Despite his 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.

Between 1897 and 1927 Atget captured the old Paris in his pictures. His photographs show the city in its various facets: narrow lanes and courtyards in the historic city center with its old buildings, of which some were soon to be demolished, magnificent palaces from the period before the French Revolution, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. He photographed stairwells and architectural details on the façades and took pictures of the interiors of apartments. His interest also extended to the environs of Paris.

He produced timeless views of the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud and Sceaux. In addition to architecture and the urban environment, he also photographed street-hawkers, small tradesmen, rag collectors and prostitutes, as well as fairs and popular amusements in the various districts. The outlying districts and peripheral areas, in which the poor and homeless sought shelter, also furnished him with pictorial subjects.

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—exploiting one of the features of bellows view cameras as 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.

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.


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.

Source - Wikipedia


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