I took a few photographs at the Chris Marker show at the Cinémathèque. I was particularly interested in the cabinet where photographs of Marker and his family were assembled. It was interesting to see them; as I mentioned in my article, Marker was a private individual. When asked for his photograph, we would invariably send a picture of his cat. So I certainly wanted to take a picture of this display. All those Chris Marker photographs in the same place! But there was a man who was examining the photographs very intently. After he heard the click of my shutter he turned to me and said, I am looking at these pictures so closely because this is my family! He explained that Marker’s family was essentially divided into the mother’s side and the father’s side, and the latter side didn’t care so much for art, culture and cinema. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Marker so rapidly changed his name. Anyway, this fellow was interesting character, and it was nice to talk to him.
Ceci est l’histoire d’un homme marqué par une image d’enfance. And so begins Chris Markers’ La Jetée, a story of memory, time, the past and the future. This is a story of man, marked by a childhood image. That could be, perhaps, Marker’s own story. At the new exhibition at La Cinémathèque française , one has the opportunity to discover all of Markers’ works, and not just his films, but also his writing, his activism — and his drawings of cats.
Marker was a singular figure in the history of French cinema, and one not easy to classify. After early experiences of being misinterpreted by journalists, he became reluctant be interviewed or profiled. He was not, however, a recluse: one may be reminded of Thomas Pynchon, who said: “’recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters”. On his library card, he substituted he picture with that of his cat, Guillaume-en-Égypte, who would serve as his public representative.
His interests were vast. He was at least novelist, director, publisher and photographer. Marker died in 2012, and the Cinémathèque were able to acquire the contents of his studio (all 500 boxes of it!). This show is a result of the last few years’ worth of cataloguing and sorting.
His most famous film in English-speaking countries is La Jetée, a remarkable short film composed almost entirely of static black-and-white images. It tells the story of a man in a post-apocalyptic Paris who is forced to voyage to the past and future and who discovers the true significance of a traumatic event remembered from his own childhood. But at the same time Marker was assembling the striking still images for La Jetée on the floor of his Parisian apartment, with Pierre Lhomme he was filming Le Joli Mai, a revolutionary documentary showing life in Paris in May 1962. Like Werner Herzog he had an amazing ability to get people to speak openly towards the camera. In the film, a young Algerian man tells of the casual racism he suffered at work; a stockbroker complains on how the Algerian war will affect his stock prices.
Today the details of Marker’s are reasonably well-known, but in the past he certainly liked to tell every person he met different and conflicting stories concerning his origins, and at times he had formative childhoods in both Cuba and Inner Mongolia. In reality, he was born in one of the more bourgeois Parisian suburbs and soon changed his name to “Chris Marker” because he’d already decided he wanted to travel. A name like Chris Marker, he reasoned, would be easier to pronounce in many different languages. Travel did indeed play an important part of his life: and in the 50s he edited a series of well-regarded travel books for Seuil. William Klein, who met Marker at this time, remarked that he was “the kind of person you’d expect to have a laser pistol tucked into his belt”.
Technically, Marker was always worked at the forefront of what was possible with the technology available at the time. Le Joli mai was one of the first documentary films for which the sound was recorded with the images, removing the need for a separate sound recording machine. At the one can discover many items from Marker’s vast collection of imaging-recording devices. He was always fascinated by the possibilities that new technologies created for recording and experiencing the word around us. The entrance to the exhibition itself is modelled around the virtual gallery he created inside Second Life.
In an interview on france culture Costa-Gavras (director of the Cinémathèque) explains that Marker understood immediately the potential of digital technology. Already during industrial disputes in the east of France in the 1960s, Marker and and a group of like-minded film-makers showed striking workers how to make films and how to use cameras and recording equipment to their advantage. The collage reproduced here from the exhibition catalogue seems remarkably prescient for our “citizen reporter” times.
Marker was deeply interested in understanding what the consequences were of the revolutionary fervour which spread around the world in the 1960s. This story is chronicled in his epic documentary film, “Le fond de l’air est rouge” which is amusingly translated into English as a “A grin without a cat”. The end results of these revolutionary upheavals? Not a lot. As Marker notes pessimistically in the DVD liner notes, for French intellectuals the bottom of the air would always be red but despite this, red would always be at the bottom.
Like many of his generation he saw cities in ruins and expected the next war to come soon enough; his first film was made in the rubble of Berlin. The images of “Paris in Ruins” of La Jetée are in fact other European cities destroyed by wartime bombing. At the cinematheque exhibition, many of Markers’ films are shown on continuous loops in separate rooms without sound isolation. In La Jetée, the beautiful choirs of a Parisian Russian orthodox church are heard at the moment of the destruction of the city. These heavenly sounds resonate throughout the whole exhibition at regular half-hourly intervals, conditioned by the length of the film. Ceci est l’histoire d’un homme marqué par une image d’enfance? Perhaps.
For those not familiar with Marker, chrismarker.org is wonderful source of information about the man and his work, in both French and English. Thanks also to Mr. J. Seagull for the loan of the exhibition catalogue.
The second act begins
After Atget’s death, Berenice Abbot, aided by art dealer Julien Levy, bought the remaining Atget negatives and prints and brought them back to the United States. In those early days, she and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin did much to promote Atget’s work; Abbott herself even printed Atget’s plates for the early exhibitions. Eventually the Levitt-Abott collection was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It was not as if Atget’s life work was saved from oblivion by Abbott, contrary what to what one might read in some histories of the time like the patchy and unequal Bystander; thousands of Atget’s photographs were already in collections in Paris. In fact, the Abott-Levy archive only represented about a third of the total volume of Atget’s work. Today on the internet one can find two great bodies of Atget’s prints: those at MOMA, and those in Paris bought directly from Atget during his own lifetime (it’s not a coincidence that in France, where all the prints are stored in public institutions, they are much easier to find and download). However, what’s certain is that Abbott brought his work to the world’s attention. One early critic even wondered if Atget was French or American! The photographs in the Abbot-Levy collection may not be “better” than those which remained in Paris, but they certainly were certainly subjected to more analysis and promotion in the years after his death.
Atget’s photography was close to heart of John Szarkowski, the highly influential director of photography at MOMA. For me Szarkowski was one of the most important figures of photography in the second half of the 20th century. Amongst his many achievements, he returned Andre Kertesz’ photography to public attention and also introduced us to Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friendlander in the “New Documents” exhibition in the 1950s. Without doubt, Szarkowski was one of the great promoters of Atget. In a key development in Atget scholarship, one of his graduate students, Maria Morris Hambourg, finally succeeded in dating and placing each of his photographs in the correct chronological order.
But nothing moves!
I had been aware of Atget’s photography for a long while; how could one not be, living in Paris and taking an interest in photography? But reading a post on Leicaphilia and spending time at home to recover from surgery encouraged me to consider his work again. What seems most surprising now looking at his photographs is how far some of them are from the pictorialist models. You see, by the time the end of the 19th century had arrived, it was assumed that photographs should imitate paintings. What a revolution it was to see that they could be something else, something that only photographs could be! It is easy to understand why Szarkowski was so attracted to Atget. Szarkowski saw photography as an art form in itself and not as a lesser department of painting. In one of his final books, drawing on the form he invented in Looking at photographs, he presents 100 of Atget’s photographs, in chronological order, with a short text on each opposing page. The texts are lyrical, poetic, but most importantly informed by Szarkowski’s own vision as a photographer. It’s a wonderful survey of Atget’s life and art.
So why consider Atget’s work today? Cartier-Bresson supposedly commented that Atget’s work was “boring”, while at the same time recognising its artistic value. Towards the end of his life, of course, Cartier-Bresson had decided that photography was inferior to painting, so perhaps it’s easy to understand this. The history of modern photography has been very much written in America, and today Atget is situated in a line leading from himself to Walker Evans and later on to Lee Friedlander and Robert Adams. All of this, of course, was very much aided by the fact that Atget left no indication of what his own intentions were as an artist. His work has inspired many in all kinds of photography; around the internet one can even find an article hopefully entitled “6 Lessons Eugene Atget has taught me about street photography” (note there are only six, not ten).
When I bought my second-hand Leica on the rue Beaumarchais three years ago, I remember the long conversation I had with the shop’s owner. He expressed his disdain of taking pictures of statues. He told me, I just don’t want to take pictures of monuments that a million other people have taken! Today it seems strange that Atget was taking pictures at Sceaux and in Versailles in almost the same year that Andre Kertesz was photographing fleeting moments in the streets of Paris with his tiny portable camera. In fact, one can find the same streets photographed by Atget and Kertesz. The Atget picture, reproduced here, focuses on the broad spread of the Rue des Chantres; Kertesz instead shows people on the street and in the bar. Not surprisingly, Kertesz came by when the bar was still open.
Nevertheless, despite my predilection for such photography, there is a deeper charm in Atget’s photography some aspects of which are against the inclinations of our accelerated times. The American photographer John Gossange remarked that he has had the same Atget photograph on his wall for decades now, and that each time he looks at it, he sees something new. Much more enduring than the persistence of an image in an instagram feed. These are photographs which have a well of meaning which is almost bottomless. They do not rely on tricks of timing and motion for their artistic effect, and have their own depths. Atget took many photographs in Luxembourg gardens, only a short walk from where he lived. I imagined him coming there early in the morning with his view camera and pointing it determinedly in angles skewed away from the graceful lines of park’s paths and hedges.
All this happened on only a few hundred metres from here
Like Atget, I live near Luxembourg. As soon as I was well enough I went to Rue Campagne-Première and looked on the wall of the building at 17b, finding the plaque marked “Eugene Atget” that had always been there but I’d never noticed before. It’s a legendary street in Parisian history. As well as the numerous artists who lived here, in Godard’s Breathless Jean-Paul Belmondo dies after taking one too many bullets a little further down the road. Walking to Luxembourg I was inspired to try to see the statues and the hedges of the park as Atget saw them. In the weeks to come I would return to Sceaux and the beautiful Park St. Cloud. In St. Cloud I even put a roll of slow 50 ISO film; not as slow as Atget’s plates, but slow enough to make beautiful images of parks and statues.
The American critic Gerry Badger recalls a conversation he had with Szarkowski, who asked him if he thought that Atget understood what he was looking at on the plate glass window of his view camera. After hearing Badger’s hesitant response — he said wasn’t sure — Szarkowski responded that of course Atget knew what he was doing. How could he not? View cameras are heavy and cumbersome contraptions. You don’t make a photograph with a thing like that by accident, it requires planning. And Atget’s final photographs were far from what might resemble an official commission. Who would pay him to take a picture of country road at 7AM in the morning? But nevertheless he went, and made the luminous picture I’ve reproduced here. Today, despite all the changes in the hundred years since they were taken, these photographs still very much merit our attention.
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.