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.