Over the course of three decades, between 1897 and 1927, Eugène Atget collected what he called “photographic documents” by visiting “all the old streets of Vieux Paris.” While the enterprise seems like nothing short of a life-long vocation, it did allow the former actor born in 1857 to earn a living: he was able to market this documentation to illustrators, painters, architects, as well as institutions. The Musée Carnavalet was among his customers, acquiring entire albums. The museum’s collections dedicated to the history of Paris now include 9,164 of Atget’s photographs.
Agnès Sire, artistic director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Anne de Mondenard, head of the photography and digital image department at the Musée Carnavalet, spent two years mining this collection to select 146 prints. The images are featured in a book published last fall by Atelier EXB and in an exhibition which we hope will soon be open to the public. As Agnès Sire explains at the opening of the volume, she saw this research as a “real treasure hunt. The idea was to view everything, to have plenty to look at, and to make discoveries in the least explored part of the collection.”
While some of the images assembled here might be well known — like the portrait of the mustachioed owner of the cabaret “À l’Homme Armé,” posing behind the glass door to his establishment — they have a fresh aura about them. This is the first time Atget’s prints are reproduced in a book format in their original colors and formats, including those he produced in his small apartment in the 14th Arrondissement. Gone is the uniform black and white; Paris now emerges in warmer sepia tones, often with a black trim around the edge that has not been cropped. We are able to appreciate the poetic eye of this self-taught photographer, who, from the late 1920s, was thought of as “the harbinger of modernity,” in the words of Agnès Sire. Anne de Mondenard also recalls that the photographer “Raymond Depardon refers to him as ‘our grandfather’.” Eugène Atget did not indulge in the pictorial effects dear to fine-art photographers at the turn of the twentieth century; instead, he developed a direct practice, where poetry was forged from attention to detail and atmospheric nostalgia.
Eugène Atget snooped around courtyards and passageways. We might see him as a precursor of street photography: the street seemed to be his favorite playground. He quested for Paris he felt was about to disappear: the Paris of old, populated with covered carts and potted flowers adorning well curbs. His was a city of uneven cobblestones, where nature was surprisingly present: the unpaved courtyards and the wooded banks of the Bièvre River still flowing across open country.
Atget also focused on working-class Paris, where there was little room for bourgeois sensibilities. The presence of upper classes can sometimes be sensed behind the walls of private mansions or doors with imposing knockers, whose grimacing bestiary is wrought in metal with extravagant detail. We also glimpse a wood-paneled salon whose luxury contrasts with the well-worn drapery of Atget’s camera reflected in the mirror over the imposing marble fireplace. This, by the way, is the only “self-portrait” in the volume.
Human figures sometimes put in an unexpected appearance in Eugene Atget’s images: ghostly figures the camera did not manage to fix permanently on the glass plates coated with photosensitive emulsion. However, the photographer also immortalized a whole town full of traders, such as the cabaret owners behind their barred shop windows.
Urban landscapes are given their due. Those who know the capital well cannot help but look for similarities with contemporary Paris, before being caught up in the dreamlike universe teeming with details, patiently constructed by Eugène Atget. Almost a hundred years after his death in 1927, the photographer is still teaching us to see Paris.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
Atget: Voir Paris, with texts by Anne de Mondenard, Agnès Sire, and Peter Galassi, Atelier EXB, €42. Available here.
Exhibition “Atget: Voir Paris”, from June 3 to September 19, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 3rd Arrondissement. More information here.