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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Atget, notre pere a tous

Atget, The Father of Modern Photography

Translated Friday 13 April 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Exhibition. The Bibliothèque Nationale is hosting a retrospective of the photographer whose series of documentary photographs of Paris have nourished and inspired the work of several generations of artists.

Eugène Atget’s (1857-1927) life spanned the second half of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century. He was a poetic flâneur who threaded his way through the streets of Paris and wandered across the city landscape for thirty years. This man was not just an idle stroller however. As a professional of the image, he surveyed, discovered, framed, fixed his surroundings, with his heavy 18 x 24 camera on its tripod and developed his own glass photographic plates. Inspired by the creation, in 1897, of the Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris (Municipal Commission of Old Paris), which had decided to draw up an inventory of its relics in order to ensure their conservation, he went in search of Paris’ little dead-end alleys, courtyards and private mansions. These architectural gems had been spared during the upheaval of Haussmann’s developments, but were nonetheless threatened once again by the new metropolitan underground system, which had created large gaping holes in the city’s landscape.

The founding father

Antimilitary, anticonformist and perhaps an anarchist, Atget led a simple and industrious life. He didn’t belong to any artistic coterie, but he was a regular visitor at the universities of the working-class districts and social cooperatives. He failed as a painter and was kicked out of the Conservatoire where he had been attending drama classes but he certainly retained a love of declamation which was to stay with him throughout his life. When he began selling the negatives he produced as archives to heritage institutions, such as the Louvre, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, he had no inkling that one day his images would be lavishly praised and his posterity celebrated by the greatest photographers. Indeed, Walker Evans, Lee Freedlander, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Bill Brandt, Jeff Wall, each of them, belonging to different periods and exhibiting different styles, would later cite him as a major influence.

A street magician

How fortunate we are that in this culture of high-speed zapping, the Bibliothèque Nationale has given us this stimulating opportunity to return to the sources of our heritage! In the gallery on the rue Richelieu, the various series of images acquired or kept on those very premises, but also those on loan from other French institutions (the musée Carnavalet, the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris) or from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are displayed, thanks to the dedicated work of the exhibition organisers Sylvie Aubenas, overall curator, and Guillaume Le Gall, a teacher at the Sorbonne, in a striking arrangement designed by Nathalie Crinière.

If you take the time to wander amongst the three hundred or so images, to really study the perspective, frontality and composition, you are struck by the beauty and the intensity which emerges from the artist’s work, an undoubtedly arduous task for him, due to its repetitive nature. You find yourself mesmerised by the images and intrigued by the photographer who did not consider that his work manifested any particular style and sought even less to produce work of an artistic merit, during that pictorialist period. Nonetheless Atget surveyed the landscapes of Corot, as soon as he got out of Paris, and spent his time producing prints which then provided inspiration to Utrillo, Vlaminck, Braque, Picasso and Fujita.

How is it then that, in Atget’s work, the prosaicness of the document is akin to the disquieting strangeness and poetry associated with primitive works of art? How is it that accumulation, in his work, produces a supernatural and ethereal element? Walker Evans spoke of his “lyrical street intelligence”. Dunoyer de Segonzac believed that “this instinctual artist, this ‘naïve photographer’, is similar to Douanier Rousseau in his ingenuousness”. Walter Benjamin was enchanted by the way Atget cleared the street, like a stage before a theatrical performance; he ‘disinfects the atmosphere, washes and cleans it’. As for Jean-Claude Lemagny, he said that Atget’s genius “lies above all in his mastery of the dreamscape”.

An American woman became infatuated with him.

One more question remains to be answered: how do we explain Atget’s considerable influence on American photography of the 1930s, to the extent that he is even considered to be the father of modern photography? In fact, it is the Americans who “made” Atget. It was pure chance. Man Ray lived a few doors away, on the rue Campagne Première. His young assistant Berenice Abbott became infatuated with their old neighbour and asked him to pose for her, producing full face and profile portraits. She followed in his footsteps as he went from les Halles, along the Seine, roamed the streets around rue Mouffetard, les Gobelins, went as far as the fortifications, immortalised the inhabitants of the suburbs, their caravans and their humble street existence. When he died, the young American woman bought some of the prints which had never interested collectors or those which he had simply never had time to circulate. Upon her return to the United States, she endeavoured to promote what she considered to be a major body of work. She showed his work to the most renowned American photographers who thus discovered Atget just after his death, at the same time as the Surrealists who were already great admirers of his fairground scenes and his portraits of prostitutes keeping watch outside their doors.

The exhibition

“Atget, a retrospective”. Bibliothèque nationale de France (French National Library), 58, rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris. Until 1st July. Open Tuesday to Saturday, from 10am to 7pm. Open from noon to 7pm on Sunday. Closed Mondays and bank holidays.

The exhibition catalogue

“Atget, a retrospective”, text by Sylvie Aubenas, Laure Beaumont-Maillet, Clément Chéroux, Guillaume Le gall, Olivier Lugon. Co-publication BNF / Hazan.
288 pages, 45 Euros.

Magali Jauffret


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