Eugène Atget (1857-1927) is often seen as a ‘primitive’ of the camera – photography’s equivalent to the Douanier Rousseau, but this is not a fair comparison. The Douanier was a simple soul, Atget was an equally lonely figure but also a sophisticated, skillful exponent of an art form still struggling for recognition. Although he never considered himself an artist, his images speak for themselves.
Towards the end of his life, Atget’s work was discovered by the American photographer, Berenice Abbott, who secured the old man’s fame in Paris and the United States. Nowadays Atget’s name features prominently in every history of photography, with several institutions holding large collections of his prints. Chief among them is the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which acquired the works that Abbott had purchased from Atget’s executor after his death; and the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, which purchased some 2,000 images from the photographer during his life-time.
For all his posthumous renown, until now there has never been a show of Atget’s work in Australia. More surprisingly there has never been one in the Netherlands or Spain, the two other venues for the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition, Eugène Atget: Old Paris.
The best excuse is the relatively fragile condition of Atget’s prints, which cannot be subjected to prolonged exposure to light. At the end of the present tour conservators have recommended the pictures be put away for at least ten years.
It is not just conservation reasons that have made Atget’s works such a rare commodity outside of Paris. He is so completely identified with the city he recorded with unrelenting dedication, that it seems a little disconcerting to view these images in Sydney. Not only are they archetypically French, they send us hurtling into a time warp.
Towards the end of his career, Atget could write, “I possess the whole of Old Paris.” In exhaustive detail he had photographed the parts of the city untouched by the massive urban redevelopments initiated by Napoleon III in 1853, and put into action by Baron Haussmann.
By the time he picked up a camera, in the early 1880s, vast swathes of a city plan largely changed since the Middle Ages, had been swept away. Grand boulevards surged through areas that had previously been slums. Parks and impressive buildings began to appear, including a set of resplendent railway stations and a new opera house, the Palais Garnier.
The changes would go on until the outbreak of the First World War, but every form of progress has a cost. The old Paris – dirty, insanitary, but full of charm, was disappearing fast, and there were many who mourned its loss. Atget was among their number, but he also saw the redevelopments as a commercial opportunity. By dutifully photographing streets and buildings before they disappeared, he hoped to preserve the essence of the old city. The prints were sold, for a few francs or less, to a wide range of artists, antiquarians and institutions.
As Berenice Abbott reminds us, Atget was born only 31 years after Niecéphore Niépce took the first ever photograph. He came from the town of Libourne, near Bordeaux, and had been a sailor and an actor before settling in Paris and buying his one and only camera, a large format, wooden bellows apparatus that used 18 X 24 cm glass plates. It was a ponderous affair that weighed almost 20 kilos, but Atget lugged it back and forth across Paris, from one extremity to the other.
He was still using it 40 years later, oblivious to the changes in technology that had rendered cameras more portable, with faster exposure times. It was his equipment, not Atget himself that was ‘primitive’, but he had grown accustomed this device, confident in his technique and sense of composition.
Even if he had wanted to move on it is unlikely that Atget could have afforded a new camera, as he was desperately poor. In retrospect we can see that his antiquated camera was perfectly matched to his subject matter. Even in his own day, everything Atget photographed seemed like a window onto the past. In the belle époque, that era of frenetic social change, he sought out the solemn remnants of a dying world.
Atget maybe have denied any artistic aspirations, but he has been referred to as an historian, an archaeologist, a poet, and even the Balzac of the camera. He claimed that he provided “documents for artists” – accurate records of a disappearing way of life that might be used as reference material by painters.
This was the heyday of Pictorialism, in which photographers took pictures that self-consciously duplicated the techniques and subject matter of painters. Atget had no interest in this movement, which sacrificed the camera’s most singular feature: the ability to capture detailed, unvarnished visual facts.
Ahead of his time in his approach to documentary photography, Atget’s images now seem like much greater works of art than all the smudgy, precious concoctions of his Pictorialist peers.
Through an intense focus on the subject Atget managed to transcend realism. His practice of photographing streets and buildings with no-one around gives his work a ghostly, melancholy ambience. He captured busy areas such as the Place du Tertre in Montmartre completely devoid of life. Notorious cabarets such as the Lapin Agile and the Moulin de la Galette look like derelict warehouses.
When figures do appear, they are often blurred, as a consequence of long exposure times. In a 1906 shot of a shopping arcade, the galerie Viviennne, we detect the merest vibration of a human aura. So too, in Cul de Sac, Impasse Barbette (1899), where a telltale smudge denotes a figure in the alleyway.
One commentator has said that Atget made Paris into a necropolis, while the German critic, Walter Benjamin, famously said that his images made us think of a crime scene. His way of recapturing the past as a series of evocative details has obvious resonance with the great literary project of his contemporary, Marcel Proust. His vacant squares recall the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.
It was this haunted quality of Atget’s pictures – what the catalogue refers to as their “troubling emptiness” – that sparked the admiration of the Surrealists. Man Ray, who was Atget’s neighbour and client, included his images in one of the Surrealist publications, but the photographer demanded that his name be omitted.
Atget was no Surrealist, but it is easy to see how his work struck a chord with figures such as Louis Aragon and André Breton, both authors of novels that celebrated the streets and mysteries of Paris. As one can see from an album included in this exhibition, Man Ray had a preference for Atget’s late, atypical works showing modern shop windows, and even a few nudes, probably re-photographed from existing images.
These are not the pictures for which Atget is chiefly known, although there is considerable variation among the ten thousand images that survive. The classic Atgets are the doorways, street scenes and courtyards, whether shot with dramatic contrasts, such as a view of 28 rue Mazarine (1922); or in a frontal, deadpan manner, as with a scene on the corner of the rue d’Arras and rue Clopin (1923).
He loved to place his camera at the end of a street or alleyway, and capture a long, lonely perspective; or find an enclosed area marked by severe geometrical forms, such as the entrance to the presbytery of Sainte-Séverin (1912). Occasionally we may be struck by the severe beauty of a composition, as in Cour du Dragon (1913), where a patch of brightly illuminated courtyard is framed by a dark passageway, set in a wall full of curves and arches.
On many occasions Atget would photograph the market stalls, the signs, the entire panoply of human activity, without a figure in sight. To achieve this effect he roamed the streets early in the morning, before the crowds arrived.
The sense that we are looking at a ghost city is no mere fantasy. Most of these streets, and all these people, are long dead. The lives they led, behind innumerable closed doors, will never be revealed or recaptured. Yet the phantom Paris of Atget becomes more moving, more eerie and dreamlike with every passing year. As we move further away from his vision of the past, it only seems to feel closer and more intimate.
Eugène Atget: Old Paris: Art Gallery of NSW, August 24-November 4, 2012.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 15, 2012