Eugène Atget: Old Paris

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French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927) was a rider of boundaries.

He walked the street of an everyday changing Paris in search of subjects, often at the edge of the decaying & soon to be torn down city walls.

Bur he also rode the transition of photography from a largely documentary craft into the elusive meaning of art.

Many of Atget’s images are at once both anonymous and too intensely personal in their composition for him to be merely a transitional figure, despite the inscrutability of the ideas behind his method.

A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Eugene Atget: Old Paris, contains over 200 of his photographs, many of which are rarely shown.

Even today, Atget remains an enigmatic figure, whose work contains no single explanation. He was a photographer who only allowed himself to be photographed twice. Now so bound with Paris, he was not born there. He initially trained and worked as an actor before retraining as a photographer in his 30’s. Some of his first commissions documented the work of illustrators, artists and theatre designers; much of his work retains the eerie sense of a stage recently emptied of its actors.

Despite advances in technology, Atget never updated his equipment. Kodak introduced smaller cameras which captured their images on film as early as 1888 but Atget continued using his heavy bellows camera and its glass plates until his death in the late 20’s. He captured phenomenal detail in his pictures yet he never enlarged them, printing them at a modest 18×24 ratio.

Adding to this enigma are the myths that have grown up around his work – primarily that he photographed the buildings of a disappearing Paris but rarely its people.

It is true that he worked at the tail-end of the French capital’s major renovations (commenced in the 1850’s) and some of the buildings Atget photographed were to disparaître (as noted on the backs of the prints), but many remain standing today.

Children in gardens, street peddlers, the Zoniers (the poor who lived in temporary accommodation in the fortifications zone circling the old walls of Paris); they and others stare out of much of his work.

The luminous depth of his work gave texture to the city’s shadows, his spectrum not so much black and white as infinite gradations of grey and white imperceptibly, then sharply, mapping out his carefully composed images.

His exposure time of several seconds sometimes registered moving figures as ghostly blurs, leading some to question whether the uncanny effect Atget often achieved was intentional. Photographers such as Berenice Abbott had no doubt of his applied skill. He worked at his natural light developed images. Atget’s pictures of confined spaces, in particular, contain the remarkable compositional logic of abstract painting.

Atget’s unshowy capture of the extraordinary in the mundane attracted the attention of the Surrealists; Man Ray befriended him in the 20’s, buying much of Atget’s output from his last decade. Andre Breton enjoyed his pictures of shop front dummies for what he saw as their sadistic, erotic undertones. Surrealists, an old boy’s club for all their radicalism, tended to prefer their women voiceless and, like a toddler foraging in its own nappy, often succeeded in robbing the focus of their interest of much of its useful resonance.

‘Eugene Atget: Old Paris‘ is a extraordinary exhibition of Atget’s own prints, almost all in a remarkable state of preservation.

If you have the slightest interest in photography, go.

{The information for this piece was primarily drawn from a talk given at AGNSW by Judy Annear, Senior Curator Photographs, on 29th August 2012. Any errors remain with the writer.}

 

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