From sailor to mediocre actor, amateur painter to photographer ingénue, Eugène Atget is an example of failing at what you want until you succeed at what you love. Atget lived in a rapidly changing Paris. The city was modernizing and instead of fighting the inevitability of change, he did something bold. He used his talents to preserve the city he loved.
His subject was France, but he focused his work on Parisian interiors, vehicles, and something he called petites métiers, or small professions (many of which were distributed and sold as postcards). His subjects varied from famous French architecture, grand chateaux, gothic churches, petite cafés, and the grittier sides of life in Paris including prostitutes and pick pockets. Nothing seemed off limits for his lens. Between 1890 and 1914 Atget amassed over 8,ooo photographs, and used various photographic techniques, including gelatin but mainly silver albumen prints.
After collecting a catalog of vieux Paris, Atget’s work seemingly dwindled during World War I, only to be reinvigorated by the surrealist painters of the time. He owes his lasting legacy to the efforts of one Berenice Abbott, a pupil and girlfriend of the artist Man Ray. In fact, most prints you find today of Atget’s photography were printed by Abbott after his death. In life, Atget chiefly kept negatives and sold copies to support his creative life, but did not mass-produce his large body of work.
Author Laure Beaumont-Maillet has said, “Atget was the photographer of Paris par excellence: its streets and its interiors, its humble trades, its storefronts. This is not to say that he was the pioneer of the genre.” Beaumont-Maillet also wrote, “Imagine what it meant to have to lug a bellows camera, with glass plates in plate-holders, a focusing cloth, a lens case, a wooden tripod: […] well over forty pounds.” More advanced equipment was available but Atget remained, “faithful to his old equipment and his old habits.” Atget is known for saying, “A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.” From what I’ve read he was quite critical of his own work.
I happened upon Eugène Atget at a local museum’s exhibit on the Tuileries Garden of Paris. The exhibit included part of Atget’s preservation of Paris series which included photos of the art showcased throughout the jardin. This sparked my interest in his other work. I had no idea at the time just how far his reach went. I found a wonderful book with over a thousand of his photos, all divided by the arrondissements of Paris – I could not recommend this compendium more.
I’ve always had a sentimental affinity for Paris. I believe it stems from my mother. When she was 17 she went to Europe for a month on a tour and one of her mementos from that time was a postcard with a black and white photo of a quaint steep stone staircase in Paris peppered with lampposts. I grew up wanting to go there and when I turned 18 I did just that. Atget’s beautiful photography stokes the embers of my love for Paris and I couldn’t be happier.
“'Having seen the famous sights of a great city,’ wrote Pierre Mac Orlan, ‘does not necessarily entitle one to hear its private song.’”