Eugène Atget


Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, born on February 12, 1857 in Libourne and died on August 4, 1927 in Paris, is a French photographer.

He is best known for his documentary photographs of late 19th and early 20th century Paris.

Childhood and early years

Eugène Atget was born in Libourne to a couple of artisans from the Parisian suburbs. Orphaned at the age of five, he was raised by his grandparents in Bordeaux. After a short secondary education, he embarked as a cabin boy on an ocean liner and worked from 1875 to 1877 on lines serving South America.

In 1878, back in Paris, he tried to enter, without success, the drama classes at the Conservatoire. He then had to perform his military service. In 1879, he tried again to enter the Conservatoire and succeeded, but his assiduity was incompatible with his military obligations. He was excluded from the Conservatoire in 1881. He began a career as an actor which he pursued for fifteen years, without much success: he played minor roles in suburban theaters. In 1885, he joined a travelling troupe of actors. His job allows him to meet, in 1886, Valentine Delafosse-Compagnon (1847-1926), who will become his companion.

The following year, victim of an affection of the vocal cords, he abandons the theater and Paris to start painting, drawing and photography. In 1890, he returned to Paris to try his hand at painting, without much success. Although he no longer performed on stage, Atget continued to maintain his passion for theater for a long time, notably by giving lectures on this art form at popular universities, until the outbreak of the First World War.

The photographer

He soon realized that painters, architects and craftsmen needed documentation, so he turned to photography. He began to photograph landscapes, trees and plants, with the intention of gathering a documentary collection for painters.

Around 1897, he embarked on an exhaustive photographic enterprise of views of Paris. His clientele evolved: Atget now primarily addressed amateurs of the history of Paris and cultural institutions (libraries, museums…). These institutions were in the process of collecting important documentary photographic collections, notably on the monuments of Paris, and would buy thousands of photographs from the photographer.

Eugène Atget organized his photographs into five series. The first, “Landscape Documents”, is the result of his first experience in documenting paintings: it gathers studies of trees and parks. The second is devoted to the surroundings of Paris. The third, the most famous, is entitled “Paris Pittoresque” and includes 900 photographs. It includes several sub-series, “Small trades of Paris”, condemned to disappear; store fronts (he sold his prints to shopkeepers for a small fee).

The fourth series, “Art in Old Paris” consists of collections of doors, staircases, knockers, taken frontally and systematically from 1898 to 1927.

The last series, entitled “Topography of Old Paris” was produced between 1906 and 1915: Atget systematically photographed each arrondissement to meet the needs of the topographic files of the Historical Library of the City of Paris.

The photographer”s approach is very methodical, shooting until one subject is exhausted before moving on to another.

He went against the grain of the pictorialist photographic movement then in vogue, which sought to imitate painting with blurs and retouching, taking sharp, detailed shots but focusing on framing, the use of leakage lines or the distribution of light. He also still uses a wooden camera, with a bellows chamber, requiring long exposures to expose the gelatin silver bromide plates, neglecting the new lighter and faster cameras that appeared at the turn of the century. Never black and white, the tint of his photographs varies from sepia to violet-brown depending on the print, always allowing for the appreciation of contrasts. Eugène Atget made all his prints himself in his apartment and filed them in albums that he regularly presented to his clients. A numbering system allowed him to replace the sold prints with new ones in the albums.

In 1899, the couple moved to 17 bis, rue Campagne-Première, in the Montparnasse district. Atget photographed his three-room apartment several times and included these photographs in the “Parisian Interiors” series, sometimes under false identities.

Despite regular institutional clients (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet), Atget”s financial situation remained precarious – the couple lived for a time on his wife”s income alone – particularly during and after the First World War, during which he gradually stopped photographing until the early 1920s.

In 1920, Atget gave the negatives of 2,621 of his photographs to the administration of historical monuments for the sum of 10,000 francs. Two thousand additional negatives were acquired by the same institution after the artist”s death.

Around 1921-1925, Atget met Berenice Abbott and then Man Ray, who bought works from him, followed by other famous artists such as Georges Braque, André Derain, Maurice Utrillo, Maurice de Vlaminck, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, Moïse Kisling and Tsugouharu Foujita.

He died in poverty on August 4, 1927 at his home in the 14th arrondissement and was buried in the 95th division of the Parisian cemetery of Bagneux. His tomb has now disappeared. His friend André Calmettes was appointed executor of his will.

Shortly before the photographer”s death, the Surrealists, notably Man Ray, thanks to his assistant Berenice Abbott, discovered his work. Through the publication of various articles and books on his work, Berenice Abbott made known the documentation he had compiled on the old districts of Paris. She writes about Atget:

“He will be remembered as a historian of urban planning, a true romantic, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, whose work allows us to weave a vast tapestry of French civilization.”

In 1927, the year of Atget”s death, the administration of historical monuments and sites acquired 2,000 plates of his work.

From May 27 to June 7, 1928, the independent salon of photography, known as the “salon de l”escalier” because it was held in the staircase of the Comédie des Champs Élysées, exhibited Atget”s photographs alongside those of Germaine Krull, André Kertesz, Man Ray and Paul Outerbridge. After this posthumous presentation, his work became a reference in the photographic avant-garde. The themes of her photographs inspired Lucien Vogel, who launched the weekly illustrated news magazine VU in March 1928, and the photographic reports that Germaine Krull signed in this magazine. In November 1928, Pierre Mac Orlan used a photo by Atget to illustrate his founding article on Photography and the Social Fantastic in the magazine Les Annales. In January 1929, when the magazine L”art Vivant launched an investigation on the theme “Is Photography an Art?”, which promoted the New Photographic Vision, it was a photograph by Atget that was on the cover.

Atget”s photographic work was of particular interest to the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in his pamphlet The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility, or in his Petite Histoire de la photographie. In the first work, Atget”s photographic work is considered a precursor in the history of this new aesthetic category, namely the exhibition value:

“As soon as man is absent from the photograph, for the first time, the exhibition value decidedly prevails over the cult value. The exceptional importance of Atget”s photographs of the deserted streets of Paris around 1900 is precisely because he situated this process in its predestined location. It has been rightly said that he photographed these streets as one photographs the scene of a crime. The crime scene is also deserted. The purpose of the photograph is to pick up clues. With Atget, photographs begin to become exhibits for the trial of history. This is where their secret political significance lies. They already call for a determined look. They no longer lend themselves to a detached contemplation. They worry the one who looks at them; to seize them, the spectator guesses that he has to look for an access way. At the same time, the illustrated magazines begin to direct its glance. In the good sense or the bad, it does not matter. With this kind of picture, the caption has become indispensable for the first time and it is clear that it has a completely different character than the title of a painting.

– Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.

The prints of his photographs can be found mainly in Paris at the Carnavalet Museum (9,000), the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris (5,600), the Bibliothèque nationale de France (4,000), and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns part of Atget”s studio collection and thousands of prints purchased by Berenice Abbott upon the photographer”s death.

External links


  1. Eugène Atget
  2. Eugène Atget
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