The Vanished Paris of Eugene Atget at Zabriskie Gallery
July 10, 2007
When traveling in Paris, I have several times encountered the ghost of Eugene Atget, a master photographer much admired by surrealists. The artist has led me down those mysterious winding cobblestone streets of St. Germaine de Pres, past antique shops with windows full of mannequins and archaic tools.
Atget tirelessly photographed the ancient precincts of Paris and its environs, believing that the old, forgotten sculptures he came across, such as Le soldat Laboreur par Lemaire, would survive history and in time be appreciated again. His photos represent quintessential views of the art and architecture of Paris during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His images, captured in a morning mist and in a lonely elegance, convey an almost mystical sense of a lost paradise.
Virginia Zabriskie recently installed this third exhibit dedicated to Atget at her galleries in Paris and New York. (The last exhibit took place in 1998 in New York). Here, 26 vintage photographs of strange doorways, crumbling buildings, dilapidated statues, dark alleys and mysterious tunnels with a hint of human presence are assembled. They are all sienna-tinted, as if by time, all historical recordings of a vanished era.
Abbott worked as an assistant to Man Ray, and in 1925 Man Ray introduced Abbott to Atget and his photographs. She became a great admirer of the photographer's work and managed to persuade him to sit for a portrait in 1927, shortly before he died. While the French government had already acquired much of his archive, Abbott was able to buy the remainder in 1928, salvage many of the negatives and begin a decades-long championing of the work. An early tangible result was the 1930 book Atget, Photographe de Paris, which credits Abbott as photo editor. Her work on Atget's behalf would continue until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. In addition to her book, The World of Atget, she provided the photographs for A Vision of Paris.
Atget photographed Paris for almost 30 years. Many noted during his lifetime that he seldom talked about his work. In the words of Marcel Proust, as quoted by Abbott, "True art has no use for so many proclamations and is produced in silence." By this writer's estimate, Atget produced approximately 2,000 glass plates and almost 10,000 prints, not counting the plates deposited in the Palais Royale archives. His body of work today stands as one of the most extraordinary achievements in photography. Yet we know almost nothing of Atget as a person and even less of Atget as a photographer. There are no books on the market now about this great master. His "history is to be read in his work," as they say, but I want to know more.
Atget was born in Lisbourne, France, in 1856. At five, Atget went to live with an uncle, a train stationmaster in Bordeaux, when his parents died. He received his primary schooling there. During the 1880s, he took up acting and playing in provincial theaters, but settled permanently in Paris in 1890. After giving up the stage, he studied to be a priest, worked as a sailor and painter before turning to photography at 41. He was completely self-taught and made a meager living by selling photographs to architects, painters, stage designers and editors. He captured subjects that he thought would be the most useful for his clientele, including parks, streets, architectural details, vendors, farms and monuments, and sold them for a couple of francs each.
Alluding to his keen eye for the anthropological value of the images, Virginia Zabriskie called him a "romantic documentarian." Deliberately or by accident, his pictures are chance encounters with readymade assemblages of old objects and tools. This is the case in Marche des Carmes, Boulevard St.Germain, in which a white Apollonian sculpture-fountain is surrounded by antique chairs, hammers, shovels: for some a small flea market, for him, a grand Dada assemblage of a fleeting world.
In personal matters, Atget was an eccentric and an uncompromising purist. From the age of 50, he lived solely on milk, bread and pieces of sugar. He was absolute in hygiene and in art. He had no car, and personally lugged a large-format view camera and an outdated, cumbersome harmonica-like outfit through streets and gardens, usually photographing around dawn. At such early hours, there was little human traffic. The streets were empty. The work, St Sulpice, Buffet d’Orgues pour chalquier clodion, depicting a church, is eerily devoid of parishioners, for example—its rows of chairs standing in for human presence. An exception to this typical emptiness is found in the print, Cabaret rue du Four et des Ciseaux, which depicts a woman, dog and a man passing by. The ornate metal staircase in Escalier 97 rue de Bac is a scene that inspired many surrealist painters with its mystery and layers of ghosts descending the staircase.
The photographer went as far afield as Amiens and Rouen with his great burden of cameras and glass plates. A feat which, taken alone, speaks volumes of his dedication. He had no car and used no flash bulbs, no exposure meters, no filters and no color plates. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of his self-imposed restrictions, there is a total consistency in his negatives and vintage prints.
Eugène Atget never called himself a photographer. Instead he preferred the label of "author-producer." He photographed in part to create "documents," as he called his works. In The World of Atget, sumptuously loaded with 176 photographs, Abbott writes, "He persisted in his choice of un-pictorial subjects and in his quest for sharpness of image and clarity of detail. For Atget, the subject was the important thing. The structure, the flawless compositions were there to clarify and express that subject as simply as possible." As it turned out, many of the areas, storefronts and public spaces he documented were demolished soon afterward to make way for rapid urbanization.
Some small part of the Paris that Atget photographed still remains, generating nostalgia for what has passed and a celebration of what continues to resist the ravages of the new millennium. Berenice Abbott perhaps said it best when she commented that Atget was “an urbanist historian, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization."
Link to online article: http://nyartsmagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=7559&Itemid=99999999