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September 6th, 2010

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10:49 pm - Eugène Atget
by John Szarkowski
Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000

One night, in my early 20s, I came across Casablanca on TV. Never having seen it (and this being pre-VHS, let alone DVD), I settled in. Within ten minutes, I couldn't stand it. How did such a cliché-ridden travesty get to be so well-regarded? Within twenty minutes, I got it: this was the source of what lesser creators would turn into cliché. My journey to understanding Eugène Atget wasn't quite so amusing, but it might be more profound overall.

Atget worked for decades in Old Paris, from the late 1880s into the 1920s, making what he called documents for artists. He photographed doors, street tradespeople, windows, architecture, public art, stairways -- whatever artists requested for their paintings, or whatever he thought would be worthwhile. He developed an objective, direct style, sharply focused, which went against the Pictorialist approach of the time.

He wrote very little about his work, methods, how he selected subjects. Even how he numbered and categorized his negatives had to be pieced together by scholars long after his death. In fact, if not for the circumstance of Man Ray publishing some of his pictures in a surrealist magazine, and Atget's work being discovered by Berenice Abbott, who was Man Ray's studio assistant, he might have been completely forgotten. When Atget died, Abbott bought as much of his estate as she could afford.

But now he's not only well remembered, with exhaustive catalogues of his work and scholarly studies, but highly lauded. Every history of photography will include a section on Atget, every book that attempts to study photography from the beginning. And they all laud his work. This left me curious. I wasn't quite getting it. I didn't have the strong reaction to cliché that I had wtih Casablanca, but there didn't seem to be anything original in the work to me.

Work by his contemporaries, and those who came soon after (Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans), thrilled me.

So it was in patiently reading this book that I finally got a handle on what makes Atget great. In fact, it was the picture below that made the first connection to me.

91, rue de Turenne (1911)

What caught my eye was how much the bottom step is worn. Worn through, in fact. Think of all the people coming home, carrying groceries and the burdens of their days, the centuries (literally) it would have taken to wear through the stairs to that degree. I can practically hear the soft tschk of their steps.

It's the vantage point -- close to the right wall, not showing much of the ironwork railing that might be the subject -- that sets Atget apart from the other commercial photographers providing documents for artists of his day. It's the clarity of the image and the prosaic subject matter that set him apart from the Pictorialists. This is how he was a bridge from the Pictorialists to the Modernists.

Another thing that makes Atget so important to photography is the length of time he spent photographing Paris. The nature of the streets of Paris, and trades people in those streets, would change during his lifetime. He would rephotograph subjects, sometimes decades apart, and under different lighting.

His photographs are very still, very quiet. There are rarely people in them (this is partly due to relatively long exposure times). He concentrated on sections of paris that were old when he started photographing, and were soon completley outmoded.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
My own most striking experience of the "Oh, so this is the original genius that all those cliched repetitious things I already know are just cheap imitations of" type is the jazz pianist Art Tatum.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2010 06:17 am (UTC)
I love Atget passionately. Never had a technical understanding of his work. There is just a feeling in those photos, an emotional atmosphere unlike anything else. I feel as though I might easily be in any of the places shown. The light is so insistent--the opposite of dreamlike. But what that light illuminates has vanished.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2010 06:25 am (UTC)
Well, when I return this book to the library, you should check it out and let me know what you think of it.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
There's the old joke about somebody who'd never seen a Shakespeare play and was finally dragged to one, and complained after he'd seen it that it was just a bunch of old cliches strung together.

I think it was in the movie Crumb that I learned that he's a pretty insistent photographer, so when he wants to draw something, he has photos to work from. Which helps account for the utter reality of his backgrounds. His A Short History of America is still fabulous. Not to mention the added-on futures, #1, #2, #3.

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