Eugène Atget: Old Paris – Photographic Portrait of a City

Paris changes . . . but in sadness like mine nothing stirs—new buildings, old neighbourhoods turn to allegory, and memories weigh more than stone’ said Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) who was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III of France to carry out a ‘renovation of Paris’.

Although forced to resign for his ‘extravagance, it is Haussman’s vision of the central city of Paris that we love so well today with its wide open spaces, space being the greatest sign of luxury in our ever crowded world.

Realism unadorned‘ is how the works of French Photographer Eugéne Atget (1857-1927) have been described. His documentation of the city of Old Paris, which he loved so well before its massive change, is considered to be a starting-point for 20th century documentary photography.

He classified his work by themes, producing five major series; Landscapes, the Art of Old Paris, a series comprising of more than 3,000 pictures, mostly produced between 1898 and 1915, Picturesque Paris, The Environs and Topography.

This latter theme included methodically documenting all its streets one neighbourhood at a time.

Central to the development of his unique photographic style was his treatment of light and shadow, especially towards the end of his career, which is considered his most expressive.

His photographs, many suffused with melancholy, make palpable the pernicious effects made by the passing of time.

In 1920 Atget wrote …’I have assembled photographic glass negatives… in all the old streets of Old Paris, artistic documents showing the beautiful civil architecture from the 16th to the 19th century. The old mansions, historic or interesting houses, beautiful façades, lovely doors, beautiful panelling, door knockers, old fountains, stylish staircases (wrought iron and wood) and interiors of all the churches in Paris. This enormous documentary and artistic collection is now finished. I can say that I possess the whole of Old Paris’.

His unique collection reveals Atget’s clear vision of his world in flux.

With his antique 19th century wooden bellows camera, supported on a tripod, he captured the very smallest of details with extreme precision simply because he used the old glass plate technique that allowed for image refinement as the light passed through the lens to register on the negative.

Many of his photographs have a quality of insightful poignancy, especially those taken in the areas of the city that remained untouched by Baron Haussman’s modernisation program.

During the nineteenth century the Emperor Napoleon III wanted Paris moulded into a city with far safer and more hospitable streets, one that had shopper friendly areas, allowed for better traffic flow and whose streets were too wide for rebels to ever build barricades in them again.

The Poet Charles Baudelaire, who witnessed many of the changes, wrote his poem “The Swan” in response. It is a lament for, and critique of the destruction of the medieval city in the name of “progress”.

An American photographer best known for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and urban design of the 1930s Berenice Abbot (1898-1991) noted in 1964

The first time I saw photographs by Eugène Atget was in 1925 in the studio of Man Ray in Paris. Their impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition – the shock of realism unadorned. The subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity. The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise, was mirrored in each print.’

Eugéne Atget inspired artists and photographers including the Surrealists.

He did not train as a photographer, but unsuccessful in other fields he tried it out to see if he could make a living from it.

Starting in the provinces he shot landscapes and genre scenes, many in the Somme an agragarian region where he lived during the late 1880’s, at least until he arrived at Paris.

He would never leave so enraptured was he by its mystical qualities, its incredible feeling of age and stately presence.

His work attracted a great deal of attention and the Musée Carnavalet and Bibliothéque Nationale became his principal clients.

Born at Libourne, near Bordeaux to working class parents and raised by his grandparents Eugéne Atget was a sailor in his youth, who turned to the stage where it would be fair to say he did not shine.

He was forty years of age in 1897 when he began what would be his true love and life’s work, photography.

The sign on his door read ‘Documents for Artists’, his specialties detailed on his business card and his clients included painters, illustrators, engravers, sculptors and designers of sets for theatre.

His visual catalogue of French culture remains a benchmark for contemporary photographers to explore.

His iconic fashion photographs, much admired by avant-garde American modernist artist Man Ray (1890 – 1976), of mannequins in department store windows were a social comment on both rampant consumerism and France’s leadership in the world of couture.

His documenting of Old Paris, was a goal he passionately pursued for over 30 years.

Atget’s understanding and interpretation in visual turns of the complex, ancient and traditional world that he inhabited are deceptively simple, rich in experience and full of mystery transcending both time and space.

There are some amazing images of buildings straight out of the remains of medieval Paris. He captured their isolation and desolation as they silently waited to be upgraded for the modern age.

One secluded spot included remnants of a 14th century courtyard that had been part of the former palace of the Archbishop of Rouen, where Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566) mistress of King Henri II had been an important denizen.

It was in a section of the city still dating back to the 15th century. He captured the irregular shape of the site, the layering of its many different structures with their cluttered jumble of windows, its roofs of different heights and styles as well as its myriad of drainpipes.

The recognition that Paris is a beautiful city arose during the reign of King Henri IV (1533-1610).

When he entered the city in 1594 it was still a pitiful medieval settlement whose streets were jammed with beggars and discharged soldiers. Determined to improve it through great building works he devoted his attention to the problem of internal reconstruction, reviving agriculture, trade and industry.

He was responsible for some additions to the royal palaces, but is particularly remembered for his visionary improvements to the city of Paris where he implemented a system of town planning that was to influence, not only Paris’ development, but also other cities for centuries including London

200 photographs taken by Atget compiled by the American modernist artist who spent most of his career in Paris Man Ray (1890-1976) are today in the collection of George Eastman House, Rochester, U.S.A with a 4000 strong collection housed in the Musée Carnavalet at Paris.

Man Ray lived nearby to Atget in Paris and was captivated by the dreamlike quality of some of his images, although they were also very real they were palatable. He encouraged others in his circle of artistic friends and colleagues to visit Atget and Julien Levy, an American filmaker, purchased many of his prints and exhibited them at New York.

In 1931 Walter Benjamin wrote that Atget had cleansed ’the atmosphere of traditional portrait photography, revealing the environs of Paris emptied of people, thus setting the scene for a surrealist school of photography which might explore a ‘salutory estrangement between man and his surroundings’.

The executor of his estate and close friend, André Calmettes ensured that when he died the photographer’s legacy was divided between the French government’s Commission des monuments historiques and Berenice Abbott, whose opinion of his work was so high that she continued to work throughout her own career to promote his work posthumously, as well as her own.

Eugéne Atget’s old Paris is surely a place you would like to lose yourself.

It is essentially Belle Époque Paris – its tree lined streets, the ravishing shops, glorious gardens and interesting people.

Atget’s photographs are a rare insight into the captivating city of love and light.

He was a founding figure for modern photography whose prints have found a large market among publishers, amateur scholars of Old Paris, libraries, and archives.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2014




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