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Atget’s legacy

Atget’s legacy

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.

Petit Intérieur d’un artiste Dramatique (from the BNF; this was actually Atget’s own apartment)

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.

Rue des Chantres Avril-Mai 1923, seen by Atget (MOMA).

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.

Eugène Atget, Luxembourg 1902-03. I thought the great Andre Kertész was the first person to photograph empty chairs in Luxembourg gardens, but it in fact it was Atget (MOMA)

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.

Eugène Atget, Sceaux Juin 7 h. matin, 1925 (MOMA)

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, his life

Eugène Atget, his life

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.

Coin de la rue Valette et Panthéon 1925

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.

La Bièvre – B.d d’Italie : Disparue en 1891, aujourd’hui rue Edmond Gondinet (BNF)

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.

Gif, vieille ferme 1924

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.

Pendant l’éclipse. 17 avril 1912. Place de la Bastille.

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.

52 Photographs (2018) #9: Don’t move!

52 Photographs (2018) #9: Don’t move!

And then, unexpectedly, the frost and snow came back. Frustratingly, all the parks and gardens in Paris are closed when there is a small bit of snow or ice. I guess they are worried about people slipping and starting legal action …

But, one morning, miraculously, one morning the gates of Montsouris were open. I rushed in and found this fellow with his high-performance camera.

Don’t move, Mr. Icicle !

And no, the icicle didn’t move.

Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

In Don Delillo’s play “Valparaiso”, an everyman becomes a media star simply because he gets on the wrong flight. Instead of going to Valparaiso, Indiana, he takes a jet for Valparaiso, Chile. The story is told entirely in the form of a series of interviews in which the unfortunate man tries to define himself in terms of his unwanted celebrity. In the end, we never get to find out what Valparaiso, Chile is really like. So it was with interest that I saw a small, cloth-bound book in a bookshop the winter before last with the handwritten words “Valparaiso” on the cover. This, it turns out, was Sergio Larrain’s “Valpariso”.

Larrain was a interesting character: born into a wealthy and privileged family, he decided quickly that he would not follow the path that had been pre-ordained for him. Attracted to a nomadic photographic life, his photographs quickly brought him attention and he became friends with Cartier-Bresson who invited him to join Magnum. At Magnum, he tried photojournalism, and was remarkably successful, managing to get an impossible photograph of a well-known Italian mafia figure by posing a tourist. And then, after only a few short years, he returned to south America, bought a house in a remote hilltop village in Northern Chile, and retreated from the world. He felt that he could not be a professional photographer at Magnum. But there was one place he continued to photograph, and that was the port city of Valparaiso. A small book of those photographs had been published in 1991 and had become legendary amongst photographers and commanded exorbitant prices on the second-hand market.

However, Larrain became increasingly reluctant to publish his work and be interviewed, and it was only after his death in 2012 could one even think about publishing his photographs. He corresponded closely with Agnès Sire at Magnum, and had even sent her an updated version of his book. And so, the Valparaiso that was published in winter of 2016 is an expanded version of that 1991 book, and includes photographs that Larrain took throughout his whole life. You can see a few photographs from the collection Over on Magnum.

I bought this book when it was published a year ago, and I return to it often. The rationalist part of me does not know what to make of Larrain’s talk of the cosmic consciousnesses and his obsession with yoga (he apparently gave yoga lessons during his visits to the Magnum offices in Paris). The photographs, however, have their own logic and charm. I am not sure I am so keen on all those macro shots of flowers and droplets of water, but the message behind them is straightforward and compelling enough. You must observe, you must see things that no-one else sees, and if you do, wonders may possibly be revealed to you. Most photographs are quiet photographs taken with a normal lens and they insist that you look at them carefully. But go just a little deeper, and the understated photographs have more meaning than they seem to at first.

No, this is not a Sergio Larrain photograph, but there are steps and some close-ups.

Larrain’s book is not a reportage about life in Valparaiso, although looking at the pictures you do get some sense of what that place might be like. People go up and down stairs, boats arrive and depart. But you see, he is finely attuned to the strange things that can happen in any place if you look hard enough. At the start of his career he realised that Valparaiso was a fine place for such things: at the exact moment he was taking a picture of a young girl with a bob haircut, exactly the same girl stepped into the frame. A double. That is what photography seems to be about: to be able to create situations where the unexpected may happen.

It has been observed countless times how surprisingly difficult it is to take photographs worth looking at. Today, this is even more confusing because cameras will make all the decisions for you — with the exception of where to point the camera, which is the most important one. Looking at Larrain’s book I found it could be considered as an interesting reflection on what a good photograph might be, and how one might find them. One could not ask for more from a book of photographs.