November 28, 2004
Eye Candy - Photography
Jean Eugene Auguste Atget, among the first of photography's social documenters, has come to be regarded as one of the medium's major figures. His images of Paris are perhaps the most vivid record of a city ever made.
Atget was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, France, and was raised by an uncle from an early age after the deaths of his parents. He became a cabin boy and sailor and traveled widely until 1879 when he entered the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris. He studied there for two years and became an actor with minor roles in repertory and touring companies, but although he was talented, he was never successful. During this period a relationship developed between Atget and the actress Valentine Delafosse, with whom he lived for the rest of his life (she eventually became his photographic assistant). Together they were able to make a poor living for a number of years, but it became clear that Atget had no future as an actor. In 1897 he tried his hand as a painter and was again unsuccessful. He started to photograph the next year at the age of 40.
Atget took no portraits per se, but he did photograph street characters: peddlers, garbage collectors, road workers, and so on. His friend Andre Calmette wrote that Atget set out to photograph "everything in Paris and its environs that was artistic and picturesque."
In recording the daily appearance of a rapidly changing Paris, Atget made methodical surveys of the old quarters of the city. He was to make over 10,000 photographs of this immense subject in the next 30 years using obsolete equipment: an 18 X 24 cm bellows camera, rectilinear lenses, a wooden tripod, and a few plate holders.
Atget operated a small commercial photography business called "Documents pour artistes" and sold his carefully cataloged images to stage designers, art craftsmen, interior decorators, and painters (Braque, Derain, and Utrillo, among others), and to official bodies such as the Bibliothéque Nationale, the Bibliothéque de la ville de Paris, the Musèe des Arts Decoratifs, and the Musèe Carnavalet. However, few of his clients appreciated his artistry.
The quiet, even understated, appreciation of a subject's beauty in Atget's work has led many to consider him naive, a primitive. In truth, his work is marked by a purity of vision, a refusal of painterly rhetoric, and a deceptive simplicity.
One of Atget's earliest admirers was the young Ansel Adams, who wrote in 1931: "The charm of Atget lies not in the mastery of the plates and papers of his time, nor in the quaintness of costume, architecture and humanity as revealed in his pictures, but in his equitable and intimate point of view. . . . His work is a simple revelation of the simplest aspects of his environment. There is no superimposed symbolic motive, no tortured application of design, no intellectual ax to grind. The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art."
In 1920 Atget sold 2500 negatives relating to the history of Paris, a large portion of the work he had been accumulating for two decades, to the Caisse National des Monuments Historiques. He described these photographs as "artistic documents of fine sixteenth- to nineteenth-century architecture in all the ancient streets of old Paris. . . historical and curious houses, fine facades and doors, panellings, door-knockers, old fountains, period stairs (wood and wrought iron), and interiors of all the churches in Paris (overall views and details)." With the help of the considerable sum he received for this body of work, Atget was able to devote more of his time to photographing with increased dedication and historical awareness those subjects to which he felt closest. Many of his most beautiful images were made during his last years.
In 1926 Atget's neighbor Man Ray published (without credit) a few of Atget's photographs in the magazine La revolution surrealíste. This marked the beginning of the important surrealist appreciation of his work. Berenice Abbott, a student of Man Ray's, was impressed by Atget's photographs in 1925, and has been responsible for rescuing his work from obscurity and preserving his prints and negatives, which she acquired upon his death in 1927. She has written: "He will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization."
Atget's work was included in the important modernist exhibition "Film und Foto" in Stuttgart in 1929. The first book of his images was published in 1931. The Abbott Collection is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Atget was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum in 1969 and of a series of retrospectives there in the early 1980s.
Posted by Dan at November 28, 2004 01:01 PM
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