The proto-modernist

Eugène Atget's photographs connect the past to the future.

Bagatelle 1926 (photo credit: Eugene Atget)
Bagatelle 1926
(photo credit: Eugene Atget)
Photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) dedicated the last 30 years of his life to documenting Old Paris – that part of the city that had flourished from the 16th to 19th centuries and stood to be destroyed by the city’s massive modernization at the turn of the 20th century. Since the 1930s, his status has grown to that of an early master photographer. Now, after a donation of 200 prints to the Israel Museum, 70 of Atget’s photographs are on show at Beit Ticho, marking the first exhibition in Israel of his works.
“Atget was attached to the stones, to the architecture [of Paris],” says Nissan Perez, senior curator of photography at the Israel Museum, who has himself dedicated over 30 years to building up the museum’s photography department.
“[Atget] was a totally isolated phenomenon. His entire project was self-assigned. You can feel his love for Paris.”
Atget’s biography is largely obscure but some details have emerged: he was born in 1857 to working-class parents, was orphaned at an early age, and spent part of his youth at sea. He later studied acting at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Paris and served in the military. He eventually gave up acting for painting, and in turn gave up painting for photography.
By 1897, he had started upon his project to photograph Old Paris before it was gone.
Perez makes the distinction that Atget didn’t photograph “life” in Paris, but rather the city itself – buildings, streets, parks, plant life – both from afar and in detail. Despite Paris’s growing population at that time, a relatively small percentage of Atget’s photographs portray human figures.
“He was one of the first with such a focused obsession in this medium,” adds Perez. His vision, his approach to the city, and his obsessive documentary attitude all contributed to the creation of a body of work which would eventually enter the cannon of modernism.
TODAY ATGET is recognized as one of the great early photographers. From a historical perspective, this large body of work, which was meant to record the Paris that was disappearing, served just as much to record the eternal Paris. One example is the flower shop on the side of the Église de la Madeleine – which exists to this day and which, except for exchanging canvas tarps for a metallic arcade, cuts an almost identical image to the one Atget recorded nearly a century ago.
But within the Paris that has been to some extent preserved, there are details hinting at long-lost urban practices: wooden carts, outdoor displays, legs of ham hanging outside across the length of a butchery’s entrance.
Signs with the names of streets and cafés show us details which helped to define the modern Parisian spirit but which no longer exist. We recognize in these details that have disappeared nascent aspects of the alreadyencroaching modern age.
This is perhaps one of the things that distinguishes Atget from other photographers who documented early 20th century life.
Through his unwitting or intuitive fixation on disappearing aspects of the city in which he lived, Atget actually became the photographic documentarian of urban and architectural development. Thus he stood at the historical crossroads of both modernization and photography.
Over 30 years of work, he became a skilled artist and also built up an unprecedented and unmatched corpus of between 8,000 and 10,000 glass-plate negatives. Not only the quality and quantity, but the variety of his images – from sculptural details to long street views – made him what in retrospect was determined to be a great artist.
All the more since, from his own historical vantage point, he could not have foreseen but only sensed the significance that his dedicated work would have long after his death.
“He was a vintage photographer,” said Israel Museum director James Snyder at the exhibition’s opening, “who in a way was a proto-modernist.”
To those immediately surrounding him, Atget would indeed have seemed old-fashioned.
He used antiquated cameras and anachronistic development techniques. He used a lens that didn’t cover the whole of the negative. His influences included 19th century French photographers such as Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville. Nothing about his practice was modern in any way.
And yet, as Perez explains, Atget caught the attention of groundbreaking surrealist photographer Man Ray. Though previously Atget had sold prints of his works as “documents for artists” – images from which painters would compose their works – and later managed to convince the French government to buy a portion of his collection for its historical value, it was Man Ray who first discovered the greater artistic significance of Atget’s work.
“The surrealists adapted his works to their needs,” says Perez. “Images of empty streets – stage-like, almost ghost towns – were included toward the end of his life in surrealist exhibitions and publications. But he was not a surrealist.”
Atget’s works made a great impact on Berenice Abbott, the great American photographer who in 1925 was still a young assistant working with Man Ray.
“Man Ray was breaking every convention possible to create new work,” says Perez. “Then came this old guy with a half-broken camera who was also creating great work.
I’m convinced it urged a reevaluation for her. It affected her so deeply that she adopted the same method of working in the United States.”
AFTER ATGET’S death in 1927, Abbott raised funds to buy a large portion of his negatives, with the rest of them going to the French government’s Commission des monuments historiques (Commission of Historical Monuments).
Upon returning to New York, she edited Atget, photographe de Paris (1930), and continued to promote his work for the next three decades – eventually releasing another book called The World of Atget (1964) and in 1968 arranging to sell her collection to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1981, MoMA’s John Szarkowski published a four-volume collection titled The Work of Atget, which assured Atget’s place as a photographic master almost a century after he picked up his camera.
In many ways, beyond the documentary value that his photographs surely contain, what Atget’s work exemplifies for its viewers is a way of seeing their own cities. It is a love for one’s surroundings, and also an appeal for attention to the processes taking place around us at all times. With his camera Atget created a photographic world which retroactively taught his audience how to look at the present as an extension of the past – and through the example of his life showed that a deep appreciation of the past can actually inscribe one into the history of the future.
Jerusalem, with its rich history as well as its own process of modernization, has had a few of its own life-long photographers – including Armenian refugee Elia Kahvedjian, who photographed Jerusalem’s Old City in the early 20th century, as well as freelance photographer Yitzhak Saad, who documented the neighborhoods of Nahlaot and Mahaneh Yehuda in the 1950s and 1960s.
But their works, with both aesthetic and with anthropological value, contain mostly images of everyday life. An artistic catalogue of Jerusalem’s architecture and landscape has yet to manifest itself – and one can only hope that Atget’s exhibition will inspire precisely such an undertaking.