Master of Light
Photography Profile: Eugène Atget
Photography serves an important role in documenting both official and personal history. If a family snapshot is about personal history then a standard photographic document is about official history. (Badger 10)
One of the most significant contributors to the official history of Paris was an unassuming Frenchman, who referred to his images as ‘documents for artists.’ Former merchant marine and relatively unknown stage actor, Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927) turned his attention to photography in the last decade of the 19th century.
Atget’s primary attitude toward photography at this time was that of a technician and enthusiastic historian.
This photograph of water lilies is one of Atget’s favorite subjects. It easily conjures up the familiar impressionistic paintings of Monet. Yet, it is likely that Atget, an astute businessman, returned to the subject of water lilies merely because of their continued commercial popularity.
Atget’s primary clients included museums, libraries, interior designers and architects who like “…many painters valued photography – but chiefly as a tool, useful to supply an image for an artist to work from in constructing a painting. “ (Orvell 81)
By the late 1880s and early 1890s Atget had photographed hundreds of pastoral scenes.
It was at this time that he turned his lens on the rapidly vanishing neighborhoods of ‘Old Paris’ and created the images for which he is best known. “Following the tradition of earlier French photographers like Charles Marville and Henri Le Secq, Atget used his camera to create images that preserved the city’s historical past.” (ICP: Museum).
Motivated by the significant changes brought on by the city’s new metro system, Atget raced to preserve what he felt were the significant aspects of living in Paris. He “…carried a large-format view camera, an outdated, cumbersome outfit, through the streets and gardens of Paris, usually photographing around dawn..” (The J. Paul Getty Trust)
There can be little argument that Atget was a dedicated, meticulous historian with a passion for architectural preservation. He was concerned with the smallest of details as can be seen in this photograph of an elaborate doorknocker created in the style of Louis XVI. Images such as these had a cumulative effect on the viewer in that they offer a sense of the entire city and its inhabitants by focusing on the mundane.
Atget had an appetite to capture it all. “He was making photographs not to create an oeuvre – the presumed goal of an artist – but to furnish an archive.” (Badger 7). In this respect, many students and scholars believe Atget’s banal subject matter make his images a perfect illustration of documentary photography. But does Atget’s work solely offer the viewer a sterile representation of reality?
One could argue Atget’s choice of subject matter indicates a desire to present symbolic meaning. “Surrealists such as Man Ray were fascinated by Atget's images of dreamlike urban spaces.” (ICP: Museum) Yet Atget persisted that he was not an artist.
As much as Atget’s photographs are a brilliant official record, it is safe to retrodict that his approach was more than purely clinical, detached of ideology or entirely absent of sentiment. Atget “…had the ability to inject a tragic quality into ordinary things.” (Museum of Photographic Arts).
It’s hard to believe that these magnificent photographs of fin de siècle French culture could be devoid of deliberate artistic intention. His photographic studies of the opulent gardens surrounding Paris are in direct contrast with the images of prostitutes and rag pickers that on rare occasion populate his images of the poorer neighborhoods. One might assume Atget was offering social commentary as well as making an effort to be thorough.
Scholars and historians believe “…in images dealing with the contemporaneous rather than the nostalgic, we see some of the social deprivation engendered by the industrialization of Paris, and might glimpse a politically aware conscious auteur…” (Badger 11)
“Photography gave him the means to create a profound and affecting meditation upon existence.” (Badger 15)
Badger, Gerry. Eugene Atget. London: Phaldron Press, Ltd., 2001. Print.
ICP: Museum. Eugene Atget: The Pioneer. 7 October 2000. 14 January 2013 Web.
Museum of Photographic Arts. Eugene Atget's Paris. 2011. 14 January 2013 Web.
National Gallery of Art. Atget: At Work. 2013. 15 January 2013 Web.
Orvell, Miles. Oxford History of Art: American Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
The J. Paul Getty Trust. Artists: Eugène Atget. 2013. 16 January 2013 Web.
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David Oliveras (www.davidoliveras.com) was born in New York City. After graduating from the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & the Performing Arts, he moved to Los Angeles to continue his studies. David’s photographs were first published in Best of Photography Annual, a national juried showcase of college photography in 1988 and then again in 1989. After several more national juried exhibitions, “Lightscapes: Abstract Photographs in Color” exhibited in New York City’s Dome Gallery marking
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