Eugène Atget, a French photographer, started his career around 1890 when he started a small business of providing images, that he preferred to call documents, as a source material to be used by other artists in their work, similar to stock photos of today, known as “Documents pour artistes” (Documents for artists) in Paris. The images included categories such as animals, landscapes, monuments, flowers, reproduced paintings, etc. In 1900, Paris’s medieval neighbourhoods were transformed into new avenues and public parks, sparking not only a sudden interest in the old Paris in its pre-revolutionary, 18th-century form but also shifted the focus of Atget’s photographic interests. Though Atget’s feelings for vieux Paris (“old Paris”) had always formed an integral part of his photographic journey, the reshaping of the urban landscape of Paris at this time, made this interest take centre stage, and he preferred to establish himself as a specialist in images of old Paris. Having worked in and around Paris for some 35 years, he created an encyclopaedic photographic collection of a city transforming from an old world to a modern one.
His visionary work proved to be highly influential with first the Surrealists in the 1920’s and then with two generations of American photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander. Though not well known during his lifetime, his popularity outside of France was further chiseled by The Museum of Modern Art, who purchased the entire contents of his studio comprising 5000 vintage prints and 1000 plus glass plate negatives from Berenice Abbott, assistant to American expatriate photographer, Man Ray, who together rescued his work from obscurity just before his death, thereby archiving the largest and most significant body of his work. (Dupêcher, 2017).
“The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”(Adams, 1931)
His photographs of the streets and buildings, parks and cafe’s of Old Paris, mostly photographed at dawn, are simplistic and real, yet being seductive and mysterious and the same time, imparting a sense of wide spaces and ambience. The sense of depth created within his photographs bring them to life and the diffused light adds to the frame. One can see the effective usage of lines in most of his works where the vertical framing and leading lines effectively draws the viewer’s eye within the frame.
Many of his photographs that were taken at dawn, are characteristic of diffused lighting and wide scene, giving a sense of space and ambience to his photographs. He made his own photographic prints without developing them, using a technique where a light-sensitive paper in contact with the glass negative, was printed out in natural light, until it had the proper density, post which it was then washed, gold toned, fixed and washed again. Though not much is known about his technique except what can be learnt from examining his surviving photographs and from a few accounts from people known to him, amongst the qualities that characterised his work was the rapid foreshortening produced by wide-angle lenses; preference of intimate vantage points over nominal subjects and working in a wide variety of lighting conditions. In the last five years of his life, He was shooting almost directly into the sun, a practice that was avoided by traditional photographers (Szarkowski, 2020).
His early works are reminiscent of a botanical illustration where Atget isolated his subject in the center of the frame, clear and detailed, providing the exact details required for an artist’s study. Most of his prints faded upon exposure to light as they were washed in salt water to fix them, mostly the kind that photographers made as proofs for sitters so that they wouldn’t be kept as permanent things (Cooper and Hill 1979). Examining Atget’s most deteriorated prints, one might believe Mann Ray’s account of ‘Atget’s impermanent and naïve technique,’ but after viewing some of his well-preserved masterpieces, it is quite clear that he was quite capable of making beautiful as well as permanent prints (Szarkowski and Hambourg 1981).
With time, the range of subjects he photographed expanded, with a series of picturesque views of Paris, including his series Petits Métiers, documenting the vanishing street trades at the end of the 19th century, as well as views of gardens surrounding Paris. He visited the gardens of Versailles from 1901 until his death in 1927, which he was not only interested for its historic significance but also its vastness and planned perspectives that presented him with new photographic challenges, where he learned to create compositions out of tonal masses, juxtaposing natural and man-made elements like architecture with trees and to join near and far elements. The pictures that he produced with this concept are characteristic of being seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true. (Szarkowski and Hambourg 1981)
Equipped with a growing knowledge of composition and technique, Atget began his greatest project, “Old Paris,” that included pre-French Revolution Parisian art and architecture, in the early 1900’s. They found particular commercial success as destruction of historic neighbourhoods raised a concern for preserving Old Paris art and architecture. A scarcity of photographic supplies and a depressed economy, following the outbreak of World War I forced Atget to photograph at a greatly reduced rate. Once supplis returned to the market, He resumed his work but there was little market for his documents in the post war era, where reconstruction became the primary concern and interest shifted away from the preservation of Old Paris. Artists started to work in modern styles with no reference to the past (Topics in Photographic Preservation, Volume Twelve 2007).
Atget sold a large portion of his enormous artistic and documentary collection of negatives of the art and architecture of Old Paris to the French government, the proceeds of which set him free from commercial concerns. With the money from this sale, Atget was freed from commercial concerns and he began photographing for his own pleasure. Even though he continued to photograph the same themes, he now did so with a sense of complete transformation and exploration. Earlier he had photographed in the bright midday sun to capture as many details as he could for his documents, but in his later work, he often photographed in the early morning or evening, thus capturing luminous and atmospheric effects into his works. His later works are one of his finest of his career, and became more sculptural, personal, and expressive (Moore, 2007).
The charm of Atget lies not in the mastery of the plates and papers of the time, nor in the quaintness of costume, architecture and humanity as revealed in his pictures, but in his equitable and intimate point of view. It is a point of view which we are pleased to call “modern‟ and which is essentially timeless. His work is a simple revelation of the(Adams, 1902)
simplest aspects of his environment. There is no superimposed symbolic motive, no tortured application of design, no intellectual ax to grind. The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true
Taking advantage of the sensitised, commercially available printing papers. Atget primary equipment was the standard large format camera, a tripod, and 180x240mm gelatin glass plate negatives. There was nothing remarkable about his equipment or technique as they were the standard that were availabale, but even in the 1920’s when they became outdated with the advent of smaller format cameras, enlargers, and developing out papers, he continued to use the same old methods throughout his career (Moore, 2007).
His photographs reveal that he had a simple 18 X 24 cm view camera, , with a rising front, as may be seen by the photographs, many of whose corners have been cut off because the lens did not give full coverage. The focal length of his lens is not known but it must have been between 11-12 inches. He used glass plates. He judged exposure by his vast experience with light conditions, subject matter, and type of plate emulsion. Because the emulsion used then were non-color-sensitive, he never used filters. He always worked with natural light even while shooting interiors. He made a practice of using a smaller aperture if conditions permitted and only opened up the diaphragm when photographing people, focusing critically on the center of interest and leaving the background out of focus (Benigno, 2011).
Examination of his photographs reveal that most of them were taken during the summer months when the sun’s actinic rays are stronger. Also Study of human figures in his images appear to be posed to the extent that Atget might have asked them “to hold still a moment.” Since Atget did not have the advantage of fast lenses and fast emulsions, he had to solve the challenges that he faced within the capabilities of his existing materials. Because his equipment was not capable of recording fast action , he worked in the early hours of the morning (Benigno, 2011).
His knowledge of light and the beautiful ways that he depicted it in his pictures can be seen in his photographs. For example, the image above of Coin de la rue de Bièvre (1924), a photograph of a street in Paris. His subtle compositional style of placing the street towards the right and allowing the carts more space shows that carts were the main subject The overexposed reflection of the light on the wet ground looks like a continuation of the light in the sky and give a energetic and lively feeling to the image (Tan, 2014)
Key points and learnings from Atget’s works-
- Simplistic and real.
- Depth & Perspective.
- Seductive & Mysterious.
- Sublime & atmospheric.
- Mystical use of light.
- Preference of intimate vantage points over nominal subjects.
- Working in a wide variety of lighting conditions.
- Created compositions out of tonal masses.
- Juxtaposition of natural and man-made elements like architecture with trees.
- Join near and far elements effectively.
- Images that appear dense in experience.
- Frame within a frame.
- Importance of leading lines within a frame.
- Importance of morning light.
- How to utilise natural elements effectively into a frame like early morning light.
- Diffused light.
- Wide scenic shots provide a sense of space and ambience.
- Making the most of the equipment he had.
- Photography as a medium for one’s own happiness.
Fig 1 Atget, E. (1924) The Panthéon (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/63469/eugene-atget-the-pantheon-french-1924/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 2 Atget, E. (1925) Hôtel Scipion Sardini, R[ue] Scipion (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/33769/eugene-atget-hotel-scipion-sardini-rue-scipion-french-march-1925/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 3 Atget, E. (1908 or 1912) Vieille Cour, 22 rue Quincampoix (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/33831/eugene-atget-vieille-cour-22-rue-quincampoix-old-courtyard-22-rue-quincampoix-french-1908-or-1912/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 4 Atget, E. (1857) Les Petits Métiers De Paris, EUGÈNE ATGET (1857-1927). [image] At: https://www.ader-paris.fr/en/lot/2187/553770? (Accessed 11/09/2020).
Fig 5 Atget, E. (1857) Conducteur De Bus | Atget. [image] At: http://www.salutparis.fr/photos-les-petits-metiers-paris-1900 (Accessed 11/09/2020).
Fig 6 Atget, E. (1857) Les Petits Métiers De Paris, EUGÈNE ATGET (1857-1927). [image] At: https://www.ader-paris.fr/en/lot/2187/553770? (Accessed 11/09/2020).
Fig 7 Atget, E. (1924) Eugène Atget Versailles 1924. [image] At: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/40790 (Accessed 11/09/2020)
Fig 8 Atget, E. (1900) View Of Gardens, Versailles, France. [image] At: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1057919/view-of-gardens-versailles-france-photograph-atget-jean-eugene/ (Accessed 11/09/2020).
Fig 9 Atget, E. (1924) Coin De La Rue De Bièvre (1924). [image] At: http://ideate.xsead.cmu.edu/projects/eugene-atget (Accessed 6/09/2020).
FIg 10 Atget, E. (1924) Rue De La Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève 1924. [image] At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286693 (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Artnet.com. (2020) Eugène Atget | Artnet. At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/eug%C3%A8ne-atget/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Benigno, J. (2011) Eugene Atget. Mastersofphotography.blogspot.com. At: http://mastersofphotography.blogspot.com/2011/02/eugene-atget.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Dupêcher, N. (2017) Eugène Atget | The Museum of Modern Art. At: https://www.moma.org/artists/229 (Accessed 02/05/2020)
Harvardartmuseums.org. (2020) From The Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Light Prop For An Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator). At: https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299819 (Accessed on 03/05/2020)
International Center of Photography (2020) Eugène Atget. At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/eug%C3%A8ne-atget?all/all/all/all/0 (Accessed 3/09/2020).
The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles (2020) Eugène Atget (French, 1857 – 1927) (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1727/eugene-atget-french-1857-1927/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Szarkowski, J. (2020) Eugène Atget | French Photographer | Encyclopedia Britannica. At: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eugene-Atget (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Tan, A. (2014) Eugène Atget. At: http://ideate.xsead.cmu.edu/projects/eugene-atget (Accessed 6/09/2020).