Eugene Atget Photographic Enigma?

 by David Maish

 

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The title of this post may seem strange and it may be a misuse of the word enigma, but as an enigma is someone or something that is mysterious or puzzling I  believe that it is possible to apply this term to Atget’s photography.

Originally I was going to provide a dissertation on Atget and his photography but the internet is a wonderful resource and many have preceded me in doing this. So I will not attempt to regurgitate these efforts but rather leave the reader to follow up on this wonderful photographer and his legacy at their leisure.   I will provide a few links at the end of the post, but a Google search on the man will provide heaps of information, and putting his name into the YouTube search engine will provide links to a number of slideshows displaying his work.  What I will attempt to do is expand on this idea that indeed Atget is a photographic enigma, in the process covering briefly the history of his work and its influences.

Before I start I will briefly cover my history of contact with Atget’s work.  Believe it or not I first heard of Eugene Atget from Ian Marshall, immediate past President of the Canberra Photographic Society, who I assume had come across him in his studies. Around that time I received as a Christmas gift a DVD set of a wonderful documentary series entitled “The Genius of Photography”.  In this show one of the talking heads described Atget as “the Mozart of photography”, which at the time I thought was a big call. On reflection the talking head may be right. In 2012 from late August to early November the NSW Art Gallery showcased in a major exhibition of over 200 original prints. Rarely permitted to travel due to their fragile nature, loans came primarily from the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, alongside the selection of prints compiled by Man Ray from George Eastman House, Rochester, USA.  Since it was shortly after I retired I took a Murrays coach up to Sydney one Wednesday (forgoing golf!!) and needless to say I was blown away!

In 2014 my wife and I travelled to Europe and towards the end of our trip my wife suffered an aneurism which necessitated here being in hospital for just over 2 months. During this time I obviously needed to keep occupied.  Prior to leaving Australia I printed off a number of Atget’s Parisian images on the off chance of seeing them visiting Paris I could do a rephotograph. Shortly after my wife fell ill I chanced upon a shop that had a number of books containing Atget’s work. I ended up purchasing the most portable one and decided to fill in my time “doing an Atget” wandering around Paris rephotographing some of his work. I had to do something to fill in the time and Atget came along and saved me.  If you’re interested check my article in the Society’s Ezine for last winter entitled Purgatory in Paris or How Photography kept me Sane.

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At the Sign of the Drum

At the sign of the Drum.

(Click on any image for larger size, where available)

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After trying his hand at acting , being drafted for military service and a short time as a painter with little or no success Atget took up photography around 1880 and would continue until his death in 1927. There was a break from 1914 til around 1920 because of the Great War in Europe during which he did not work.

“Atget’s work is unique on two levels. He was the maker of a great visual catalogue of the fruits of French culture, as it survived in and near Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century. He was in addition a photographer of such authority and originality that his work remains a bench mark against which much of the sophisticated contemporary photography measures itself. Other photographers had been concerned with describing specific facts (documentation), or with exploiting their individual sensibilities (self-expression). Atget encompassed and transcended both approaches when he set himself the task of understanding and interpreting in visual terms a complex, ancient, and living tradition. The pictures that he made in the service of this concept are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true.”….from http://www.atgetphotography.com

I believe Atget saw himself as a documenter, a visual historian who photographed what was in front of him. His obsession of course was the city of Paris. He built up a vast archive of Paris’ old houses, shops, churches and streets as well as architectural ornamentation including doors, stairways, door knockers and the like.

He derived an income from selling his “documents for artists” as he call them. One of his advertisements stated “that he produced documents for artists, landscapes, studies of trees and plants, picturesque views.”  He only wanted to produce photographic documents. He had no pretentions towards the artistic in his work.  In fact a quote attributed to him perhaps supports this view.

” A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but  eloquent.”

He came to the notice of Man Ray and American ex pat surrealist artist living in Paris.  In 1926, Man Ray reproduced an Atget photograph a group of pedestrians shading their eyes as they looked at the sky, watching an eclipse on the cover of a Surrealist magazine. When he told Atget of his intention, the older man replied, “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make.”  .

At Man Rays behest other surrealists were encouraged to meet Atget and look at his work.  Dali and Picasso ( a cubist) are said to have been influenced by him.

In my travels around the internet I found a number of commentaries on Atget photographs waxing lyrical about the image. One particular favourite of mine is a commentary on an image of a statue in the garden at Versailles which represents Mosniers replica of the Dying Gladiator in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  It goes…

“Drawing on his long experience relating near and far objects and vistas in the gardens of Versailles, the photographer juxtaposed the statues so that the figure of Apollo in the background seems to rise like the living spirit escaping the body at death.”

Really such imagery from a man who said “these are simply documents I make”

The image in question is below:

Digital Photo File Name:DT1190.tif Online Publications Edited By Michelle Ma for TOAH 11_23_15

Dying gladiator.

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I tend to believe that in the end, the success of Atget’s work seems to suggest that the art of photography has less to do with following conventional methods  than with intuitively knowing the right place to stand.

One of the puzzles with Atget’s work is trying to fit a genre to him.  In this day and age, and even in times gone by we tend to try an pigeon hole people and categorise their work.   With Atget it is no different.

Was he a street photographer? It could be argued he is the father of street photography . Many of his photos show hawkers walking the streets plying their trade, shop windows and mannequins and dare I say ladies of the evening in red light areas.

Was he a documentary photographer/historian,  documenting  parts of Paris for posterity before they were lost forever?

Was he a landscape photographer documenting the Parisian urban streetscape?

Was he an architectural photographing in detail the buildings,  fountains and statues?

He also did some formal portrait work during his career as well as a few nude female images.

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Corner Rue de Seine
Corner Rue de Seine.
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So here we have this somewhat driven man photographing Paris producing his documents for artists to make his living.  I believe he did not regard himself as an artist but rather one who captured what was in front of him.  I feel he was intuitive photographer with a great eye for composition who produced a legacy that still inspires and influences photographers today. It goes without saying that we are probably lucky to have this lasting legacy.

In 1925 the American photographer Berenice Abbott saw a few of Atget’s prints that had been collected by the artist Man Ray, for whom she then worked. She subsequently visited Atget several times before his death in 1927. In 1928 Abbott bought Atget’s residual collection of more than 1,000 glass plates and perhaps as many as 10,000 prints. The next year Abbott wrote the first of her many essays on Atget’s work, in which she said, “In looking at the work of Eugène Atget, a new world is opened up in the world of creative expression.” By the end of 1931, this admiration had been echoed by two other outstanding young photographers of the time—Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. Indeed, a new generation of photographers developed, with the help of Atget’s example, a new idea of creative photography, based on the poetic potential of plain facts, clearly seen.

So here we have a photographer who primarily saw himself a producer of documents who clearly had an innate photographic  ability, producing a legacy which is , dare I say it timeless.  He did not see himself as an artist but today many do. Who cares what genre of photography he is labelled with, or whether he is artistic or documentary?   I remember watching a documentary hosted by the English Actor Hugh Lawrie of “House” and “Blackadder”  fame . He was travelling in the Southern USA following his desire for Blues music.  In the show  he was in a record shop talking about all the different labels and genres on display. Then he stated that he believed that there are only two types of music.  Good and Bad.  I feel the same applies to photography.  Atget’s work is definitely in the former category.

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Marchard d'abat-jour, rue Lepic

Hawker of lampshades, Rue Lepic.

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I’ll conclude with a couple of paragraphs from Christopher Rauschenberg  that appear on the Lensculture website.

“As I was rephotographing Atget images, I kept seeing places that he hadn’t photographed but that seemed to me to be also rich with the feeling of his work. I photographed hundreds of those places where I felt Atget’s spirit. Included here are just six of them. I don’t claim to have been channelling Atget, or that Atget would have photographed those places were he to see them. I was walking around Paris “in Atget’s shoes” and this is where they took me.

Having photographed all of these scenes, it is clear to me that the Paris of Atget’s vision is still there and available to eyes that look for it. In central Paris, most of the scenes that Atget photographed are still there, and still posing. You can see the effects of acid rain on them; you can see the effects of graffiti; most of all, you can see that the magical streets of Paris are now thickly covered with parked cars.

However, among all the other Parises that co-exist so thickly in one amazing city, Atget’s Paris is still definitely and hauntingly there.”

Having done the same thing  as Rauschenberg  I wholeheartedly agree and  I couldn’t say it better.

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atgetprostitutetakinghershift1

Prostitute taking her shift.

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Following  are some web links for more on Atget as well as a link to my Flickr album with some of my Atget rephotographs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One comment on “Eugene Atget Photographic Enigma?

  1. Helen McF says:

    Greta article David – thanks for sharing and for the insights you continue to provide into this photographer and his work.

    Like

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