(6/55) Eugene Atget - photographer

Eugene Atget by Berenice Abbott 

There are many things you can learn from a study of photography. There is to start with, of course the technique of doing it. Many many books, magazines & websites can show us how to expose an image. What a camera does, what a lens does and how to use light to make a photograph.
That's the 'how'.In many ways the easiest way to start an appreciation of the work of other photographers. Learn by doing.

Don't get me wrong it is important to know 'how'. Technique in photography is what we use to express what we see. But the question of 'why' is I think more central to a deeper understanding of the work of others. And in a world overrun by the daily creation of millions of photographic images, finding out why has never been more important.

That's not to say all photographs require a context in order to enjoy or understand them, just that finding out why - helps us answers more fundamental questions about meaning in photography including understanding  the often hidden ingredient of 'personality'.

That is to say, knowing more about the person and their motivations often enriches our understanding of their work.

The photographs of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) are fascinating in this regard. And quite mysterious as a body of work, both due to the nature of the photographs themselves but also in regard to their elusive maker.
On the one hand his photographs, especially when seen as a collection have a distinct authority and personality quite unlike any other photographers work. They capture a unique point of view and have an identity that clearly marks them out as the work of the same person..

But also conversely, the photographs are a mystery. The man who made them was quite reclusive so we know very little about the life of the man who made them, including his personal motivations and his thoughts about his work. In a way, the photographs are all we have.
And it's a testament to the power of his photographs and the strength of Atget's convictions, that despite the lack of circumstantial testimony about the inner workings of their maker, his photographs have continued to exert an influence on generations of fellow photographers.

But what photographs they are. Wonderful, slightly primitive images taken in Paris that show the streets, architecture, parks and trees of the city.

But before we examine them, it's important to note that many of Atget's 'signature' images, that is to say his most familiar and popular photographs were taken towards the end of his career. And were, like the many images that proceeded them, taken as commercial works made to order for clients including artists who used his images as reference for making other works such as paintings, drawings or etchings and also latterly to museums and archives, who appreciated his detailed images as records of times past.

Also important to note is the shift in his working methods used to create these later works. For rather than working during the brightest or most dramatic periods of the day, for example when the sun was high in the sky, or when deep shadows were cast by the sun in  early morning & late afternoon, he chose instead to work at first light or at dusk when the light was diffuse and clear.

 His equipment, common for the period in which he was working, consisted of a large wooden camera & bellows, a wooden tripod and standard-size gelatin glass negatives (18 x 24 cm), which would produce equivalent sized prints. Since the 1880s, he (along with many outdoor photographers) had taken advantage of  the manufacture of dry plate negatives, which made location photographer simpler, less messy and more practical than wet plate photography. A process whereby photographers had to coat individual sheets of glass with quick drying and noxious chemicals, then rapidly expose and develop them.


In terms of the photographs themselves, Atget did describe what he thought his images represented. He said they were 'artistic documents of beautiful urban architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries'.

That's probably the salesman in him talking.

They are documents. But his artistic intentions, his background as a former painter and his unique sense of taste, make them so much more. Like the work of Walker Evans, who was a great admirer of Atget's work, his photographs, when initially viewed, seem to be straightforward documents of things. Or views. Without a strong sense of maker. But when viewed repeatedly, and with an open mind, they are clearly 'doing'  something entirely different. And have a strong viewpoint. Not insistent perhaps, but clear and legible nonetheless.

The images he captured, particularly those taken in Versailles or in parkland are deliberate visual statements. He'd taken too many photographs, exposed too many negatives for the effects (both visual & sensory) in these photographs to be random accidents or the product of chance.

One curious footnote. An aspect of his photographs that is especially evident is that very few people appear in his photographs. There are clear signs of of habitation - reflections in windows, abandoned wheelbarrows on cobbled streets, blurred outlines, shadows. But what you notice more are the signs of absence.
The writer Walter Benjamin said: 'Not for nothing were pictures of Atget compared with those of the scene of a crime'.

At the end of his life, Atget did receive a measure of recognition. But it was only after his death that his work became more widely know. He met just before his death, the American photographer Berenice Abbott, as written about here  who was working in Paris for photographer (and surrealist) Man Ray.

Abbott bought the remains of Atget's archive after his death in 1927 and began to promote his images, reprinting his work using the original negatives. In 1930, she published a book of Atget's photographs, Atget: Photographe de Paris, which established Atget as a Modernist.

Subsequent exhibitions have confirmed that view and his reputation as a master photographer. Albeit one, whose own ambitions and views on his work may have been more modest and pedestrian.



Versailles, France, 1923

Parc de Sceaux

Parc de Sceaux


St. Cloud

All photographs copyright original copyright owners
All text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012
Share on Google Plus

About Nick_L

This is a short description in the author block about the author. You edit it by entering text in the "Biographical Info" field in the user admin panel.