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.