Monday, February 12, 2007


"Often the central thought of an image by Atget consists in the confrontation of two opposing ideas: the grandiose and the humble, the elegant and the commonplace, the past and the present, the static and the moving, the light and the dark." -- J. Borcoman.

Eugene Atget was born on this day in 1857 in Libourne, France; he died on August 4, 1927 in Paris.

Orphaned at an early age, Eugene Atget was a loner and a drifter for much of his life: he worked on ships for awhile, then traveled as an actor in provincial theater groups and finally turned to photography, accepting routine commissions from architects and public bureaus to document Paris -- its streets, shops, historical monuments and parks -- during a period (1892-1927) in which large sections of old Paris were being demolished to make way for the redevelopments that were begun by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. In 35 years Atget amassed over 10,000 documentary images, made as golden albumen and gelatin contact prints from 7 x 9-1/2 inch glass plates using a wooden bellows camera. When his simple, unpretentious compositions were "discovered" by Man Ray, Andre Breton and others during the 1920s (and preserved by Man Ray's assistant, photographer Berenice Abbott), Atget's reputation as a "folk" artist of unique vision, uninfluenced by the "art photography" movements that raged around him, began to emerge.

Atget was not the simple tradesman that his earliest proponents made him out to be, however; a frequent public lecturer on literary topics, it is more likely that in the course of his routine jobs he sought for his own purposes to reflect on a Paris of the literary past as imagined in the works of Hugo and Dumas pere and fils -- a landscape of dreams and portentous solitude, with the French countryside still coursing into the city's main arteries from the perimeters. Since he normally shot his Paris scenes early in the morning when there were few people in the streets, they are almost surrealistically empty, imbued with expressive, deep dawn shadows and soft haze. Despite the dream-like qualities of his work, there is also a sense of straight-forward presence in many of his photos; his depictions of horse-drawn tramways, restaurants, walls plastered with posters, and street vendors are also evocative of a vanishing civilization, but a civilization whose lashes still fluttered in Atget's daily sunlight.

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