Eugène Atget is one of the most mysterious and interesting characters in the history of photography. Recovering from a recent operation (and I could only take pictures from the window) I found myself suddenly with a lot of time. Motivated by a few books I’d bought and a post on the ever-interesting Leicaphilia, I found myself reading a lot about Atget. He turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. So here are two posts about him.
Details of his early life are obscure. As a young man, perhaps, he was a sailor. There were stories that he made a long trip to south America. But he came back to France. He always was attracted to the theatre; he tried acting, but it didn’t work out. Refused entry into prestigious actor’s guilds there was doubtless a long and dispiriting circuit in half-empty provincial theatres where no-one could appreciate his talents. He was in his forties before he turned seriously to photography, sometime in the 1880s.
It was a strange time. By this point, photography was a few decades old. The first dry plate methods had been invented which made possible taking photographs outside without needing a darkroom. But cameras were still large and cumbersome: roll film, pocket cameras and Leicas had yet to be invented. More importantly not everything had been photographed yet. As well as that, no cheap means had been found to mass-produce photographic images. So they were a scarce commodity, and people were ready to pay money for photographs. Especially in a city like Paris, where everything was changing and there was a need to document those changes before the city dissolved away and was replaced by something newer. Moreover, the streets were full of artists’ studios. In those days there were no books or magazines with photographs of famous sculptures or paintings that would be useful to an artist searching for inspiration. There was a market for someone who could supply those kinds of photographs. Famously, on the door of Atget’s studio hung the modest sign “documents pour artistes”.
Charles Marville showed that a living could be made from photographs. Employed under the second Empire to take pictures of Paris’ crumbling streets before they were obliterated by Baron Haussmann, he was a wet-plate photographer who produced straightforward pictures of buildings and streets. The technical limitations of photographic technology doubtless constrained him, but he demonstrated to everyone the value of photographs as a documentary proof of a thing that no longer exists. Even by Atget’s time, Paris had never attracted the concentrated attention of a great painter. There was no Canaletto to paint the Seine, no Vermeer or Rembrandt or Caravaggio to draw life in the streets. Before photography was invented, images of Paris came mostly from engravings. When he started photographing, Atget certainly had these in mind.
Unlike Marville, Atget never had a civil service job. Sometimes, he worked on commission, other times on projects of his own invention. One of his earliest works was a series of street photographs of artisans and merchants, prefiguring August Sander’s great studies which would take place a few decades later. But Atget seemed to have an uncertain relationship with people and they soon disappeared from his photographs. His work was organised, methodical and divided in several broad categories. He photographed not only buildings but door-knockers, shop-fronts, courtyards. He visited the grand public gardens of Paris, Luxembourg and Tuileries. He studiously avoided photographing Haussmann’s work, and the broad open avenues that Haussmann created were not recorded by him.
He photographed what in those days was the outskirts of Paris, the zoniers who lived precarious lives in difficult conditions. For those who know modern Paris, some of these photographs are astonishing: in one, we see a stream running through a wooded grove. Reading the inscription, we see that this forest grove is in the centre of Paris, and that this river is not the Seine but the Bièvre, Paris’ other river which is now buried underground and which in the past led an essential role in the industrial development of Paris.
Atget also travelled to many villages around Paris, places that today have been drowned by the slow creep of suburban Paris, places which for us now are stand-ins for provincial villages deep in the French countryside. One commentator said he was astonished by how much that Atget had travelled around France, not realising until much later that those towns and villages were at most a few hours’ tram ride from Atget’s apartment.
And then he was seventy. He continued to photograph, in the same way and with the same heavy view camera, but now he could freely choose for himself what he’d photograph. He rose the in the dark of the night to travel to the great parks around Paris, St. Cloud and Versailles and Sceaux, arriving at daybreak, photographing in the early morning light places he’d photographed decades earlier. By this time he had amassed an enormous collection of negatives and hand-made albums of every aspect of Parisian life. His prices modestly reflected not the artistic content of the photographs but how far he’d had to travel to take them, for they included the cost of transportation. He wrote to the great public institutions of Paris and offered to sell them all his archives, telling them that, in fact, he “owned all of old Paris”. But they did not seem all that interested. They bought some, but left thousands more.
By now, it was the 1920s. A few doors down from Atget’s apartment on Rue Campagne-Première lived a certain Man Ray, who would become one of Paris’ most celebrated portrait photographers of the time and a key figure in the surrealist movement. Man Ray supplemented his income by taking photographs of friends and visiting celebrities (celebrities paid more of course) and knew everyone. He knew the old man because probably Atget sometimes came to artists’ studios offering to sell photographs and prints. Man Ray even bought a few dozen, and on the front page of his surrealist magazine he published a photograph of curious Parisians staring at solar eclipse from the Place de la Bastille. Another Atget photograph the surrealists appreciated showed headless dummies modelling women’s corsets in a shop window in the Rue des Gobelins. Reflected in the shop window one can see the dome of the Manufacture des Gobelins across the street, where tapestries and furnitures are made for all the great French buildings from the 15th century onwards.
One of Man Ray’s many acquaintances was a young American woman, Berenice Abbot, who was immediately interested by Atget’s photographs. She visited him in his studio, saw how he slowly developed his plates, interrupting their cups of tea by taking them out of the developer bath to peer at them under a special light (Rodinal stand-developing!). He hand-assembled his albums from contact prints he made himself. There were no enlargers. Atget allowed her to take his portrait (probably to the annoyance of Man Ray) and this the portrait everyone sees when they think of Atget, an old man with stooped shoulders and tousled hair. And one day, coming back to the apartment to see him, she discovered that old man was gone, the apartment empty. And what had happened to the negatives? Where had they gone?
And this, in fact, is the start of this story.