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Eugène Atget - Biography and Legacy

French Photographer

Eugène Atget Photo

Born: February 12, 1857 - Libourne, France

Died: August 4, 1927 - Paris, France

Biography

Early Period

Jean Eugène Auguste Atget was born in Libourne (France) to working-class parents, Jean-Eugène Atget, a carriage maker and saddler, and Clara-Adeline Atget. His father changed careers to be a traveling salesman only to die a few years later on business. Shortly after, his mother, Clara, died as well. Faced with a harsh and unforgiving childhood, which left him orphaned at the age of five-years-old, he was raised by his elderly grandparents, Victoire and Auguste Hourlier, who lived in Bordeaux, France. Atget soon joined the seafaring life as a cabin boy.

In 1878, Atget moved to Paris and applied to France's most important acting school, the National Conservatory of Music and Drama. He poured all his hope into this opportunity since he had little money and was also living in a dingy part of town. Sadly, he was not only rejected by the acting school but was then drafted into the army for five compulsory years of service. Atget, determined to make a career for himself in acting, reapplied and was accepted one year later. His future in acting looked bright according to his mentor and famous actor, Edmond Got. However, his short stature of 5'5" did not lend itself to an ideal presence on stage, and Edmond Got later described Atget as having an, "inelegant accent." In a series of unfortunate events, he was dismissed before graduation in 1881 and in the same year, his grandparents died.

Atget did not give up performing after the dismissal. Instead, he turned to acting in small troupes that travelled around the French countryside. The experience proved fruitful for Atget who made many friends including fellow actor, Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, who became his lifelong companion. Shortly after leaving the troupe, Atget looked for a new creative outlet and took-up painting. He moved to Paris and started working as a professional photographer in 1888, he also did not have any formal training in photography, but his choice was most likely made out of financial necessity.

Mature Period

At a time when photography was quickly becoming well-known for its documentary purposes, Atget setup his own studio in Paris in 1890. He displayed a sign that advertised his photography as Documents pour artistes (Documents for artists), selling photos of landscapes, flowers, monuments, and the like. His work did not just serve artists, but also set decorators, historians, metal smiths, publishers, and later, national institutions. Atget soon found his life's work in documenting old Paris beginning in 1897. Thanks to the Baron Haussmann public works and buildings renovations that swept Paris at the end of the 19th century, Paris was a vastly changing city that saw the demolition of old buildings and streets destroyed by war to make way for more modern architecture. Atget sought to capture architecture and decoration in his photography before it was forever gone.

Though his impetus to capture a changing Paris was done all on his own accord, he had also found a business niche where he could earn a living wage. He remained frugal in his lifestyle, never throwing away paper that was not completely used, wearing old clothes and sustaining himself off of a prudent diet of bread and milk (because of digestive problems, but also, he said, because anything more was "immoderate luxury"). One of his friends described him as 'intransigent, obstinate, and independent.' His stubborn personality and thrifty nature led him to also embrace the old photographic technologies like the cumbersome, tripod-mounted view camera that used glass plates. He took this very large camera along with him outside and used it on a regular basis rather than the available hand-held cameras. The same went for the film he used, albumen paper was just as outdated as the tripod camera. When the film ceased to be manufactured, Atget nonetheless was still able to find the film and print using albumen.

Atget described his work as making documents. However, his short time spent as a painter and living in France during a time when the painting en plein air was quickly becoming popular, influenced him to create many photos of nature like lily pads, budding trees, and haystacks that are highly redolent of the Impressionist artists like Monet. Nonetheless, Atget never joined any of the flourishing photographic or arts clubs of his day.

In 1898, Atget saw his first real success in photography when he sold his photographs of Paris to various state run organizations, such as the Musée de Sculpture Comparé and the Musée Carnavalet, and later, the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris and École des Beaux-Arts, among others. By 1901, Atget successfully became a Paris "specialist." He printed new business cards that read, "E. Atget, Creator and Purveyor of a Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris." His passion for theater continued and beginning in 1904, he lectured on theater at various universities across Paris. His commercial success would continue to burgeon, but he did not receive adequate funds for his work until much later in his life, which solidified his outmoded ways of photography and austere lifestyle.

Once World War I broke out, Atget produced very few, if any images at all. After the war, more interest was taken in the reconstruction of Paris than in photos of the old city. Yet, he did achieve another commercial success of selling 2,600 thousand of his glass plate negatives to the French State. His heart-felt commitment to documenting Paris in painstaking detail shows the dedication that he felt towards his photography: "For more than 20 years I have been working alone and of my own initiative in all the old streets of old Paris to make a collection of 18 x 24 [centimeter] photographic negatives: artistic documents of beautiful urban architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Today this enormous artistic and documentary collection is finished; I can say I possess all of old Paris."

Later Period

Once Atget met the Surrealist Man Ray and his studio assistant, Bernice Abbott, the perception of his work changed forever. Abbot saw Atget's photos around Ray's studio and she starting visiting Atget frequently. Abbott bought his photos whenever she could, and eventually convinced him to sit for a photograph in her studio. Just one year before Atget's death, a few members of the Surrealist movement approached Atget to use one of his photos as the cover of their magazine, La Révolution Surréaliste. They enjoyed the dreamlike qualities of his photographic style and uncanniness of his subjects. Though Atget agreed, he did not want the photos to be attributed back to him, since he believed his photos were just to be documents, not artwork. Atget, in the role of an artist, didn't get much recognition in his lifetime. Instead, his photos were collected and used by famous French painters like Maurice Utrillo, Georges Braque, and André Derain.

In June of 1926, Atget's longtime companion, Valentine died. Atget's health steadily declined until he passed away on August 4th, 1927. Abbott bought the rest of Atget's archive that totaled about 5,000 prints and 1,300 negatives, and worked to promote his images with New York City gallery owner, Julian Levy. The other part of his work was given to the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Once Abbott returned to America, she set to work allowing for Atget's photos to be seen by a larger public. Cataloging all the plates and prints she owned of Atget's she hoped to publish a book of his work and she selected photos for various traveling exhibitions. All the while back in Europe, French magazines began picking up on his elegant shots of architecture and his work was published in Le Crapouillot and L'Art Vivant. In 1930, Abbott's book on Atget was published simply named, Atget. His images started to be recognized as works of art and as a lifelong commitment to document everything Paris might lose in the wake of modernism.

Atget's style of photographing lived on in Abbott's photography of the New York City with subsequent museum exhibitions comparing Atget's Paris and Abbot's New York City. Finally, after many years of promoting Atget's photography Levy and Abbott sold their archive to The Museum of Modern Art where photography curator, John Szarkowki's scholarship and posthumous exhibitions of his work solidified Atget's reputation as a pioneering French photographer.

Legacy

Atget's career was in many ways more influential than it was well-known. His photography greatly influenced photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and later giants like Irving Penn and Lee Friedlander. Abbott's images of soaring New York City skyscrapers, Manhattan house doorways, and storefronts in the 1930s have a strong connection to Atget's subjects of monuments and iconic buildings. Like Atget, who did not crop his photos, Abbott was a straight photographer, who did not believe in manipulating photographs.

The interest that Atget took in window reflections continued in the work of Lee Friedlander's photography that was prolific in the 1960s and 1970s. Though his photos focused more on the "social landscape" of cities, Friedlander also used reflections to combine or disjoint space to add a more complex narrative to his photos. Quite possibly one of the most influential photographers to come out of the 20th-century was influenced by Atget's documentary style as well. Walker Evans's encyclopedic collection of modern America with its small-town main streets and the people scattered along the streets are highly similar to Atget's famous street views and pictures of the lower classes in France.

Beyond Photography

Moreover, Atget's photographs influenced French writers and poets like Pierre Mac Orlan, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, and André Breton. He was thus one of the inspirations for the Surrealist movement.

Atget's work also influenced contemporary painters like Richard Estes, who heavily drew upon reflective surfaces found in urban centers. His mirror imagery of shiny cars and shop windows amplify Atget's legacy by looking at surfaces most prominent in our society. Lastly, the fears of modernism felt so deeply by Atget reverberated through to the post-war Pop art movement and postmodernism. Various Pop and conceptual artists like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Ed Ruscha grew increasingly weary of the mass consumer culture and its effects of a one-dimensional civilization.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"I can honestly say that I have captured all of old Paris."
"These are simply documents that I make."
"The earliest expression of true photographic art."
Ansel Adams Signature
"His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown a poetry which is not the `poetry of the street' or `the poetry of Paris' but the projection of Atget's person."
Walker Evans, "The Reappearance of Photography", Hound and Horn

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