Eugène Atget (12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927) was a French flâneur and a pioneer of documentary photography, noted for his determination to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization. Most of his photographs were first published by Berenice Abbott after his death. An inspiration for the surrealists and other artists, his genius was only recognized by a handful of young artists in the last two years of his life, and he did not live to see the wide acclaim his work would eventually receive.
Atget took up photography in the late 1880s, around the time that photography was experiencing unprecedented expansion in both commercial and amateur fields. He sold photos of landscapes, flowers, and other pleasantries to other artists. It was not until 1897 that Atget started a project he would continue for the rest of his life—his Old Paris collection.
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.
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 before World War II, 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.
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. 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 artists such as Man Ray, André Derain, Henri Matisse and Picasso in the 1920s. Man Ray not only purchased a number of Atget’s photographs but also used During the Eclipse for the cover of his surrealist magazine la Révolution surréaliste. When he asked Atget if he could use his photo, Atget said: “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make.” Man Ray said that Atget’s pictures of staircases, doorways, ragpickers, and especially those with window reflections and mannequins, had a Dada or Surrealist quality about them. Man Ray was a neighbor of Atget—they lived on the same street—and offered to lend him his modern camera, but Atget refused the offer, preferring to use the older techniques.
His death went largely unnoticed at the time outside the circle of curators who had bought his albums and kept them interred, mostly unseen. “This enormous artistic and documentary collection is now finished”, he wrote of his life’s work in 1920, though he did not stop working at this point.
Atget created a tremendous photographic record of the look and feel of nineteenth-century Paris just as it was being dramatically transformed by modernization, and its buildings were being systematically demolished.
Atget had published almost no work before “his genius was first recognized” by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, two young American photographers working in Paris at the time. When Berenice Abbott reportedly asked him if the French appreciated his art, he responded, “No, only young foreigners.” His discovery by Ray and Abbott happened around 1925, just two years before his death, and Berenice Abbott first published most of his work in the United States only after his death. She exhibited, printed and wrote about his work, as well as assembled a substantial archive of writings about his portfolio by herself and others. Abbott published Atget, Photographe de Paris in 1930, the first overview of his photographic oeuvre and the beginning of his international fame. She also published a book with prints she made from Atget’s negatives: The World of Atget (1964). Berenice Abbott and Eugene Atget was published in 2002.
Selected photographs by Eugène Atget