After his fiftieth birthday Eugene Atget limited his diet to milk, bread, and bits of sugar; he honed in on his hygiene and lived to perfect his art. Peculiar in his habits and devoted to the development of photography, Atget struggled... [more]
After his fiftieth birthday Eugene Atget limited his diet to milk, bread, and bits of sugar; he honed in on his hygiene and lived to perfect his art. Peculiar in his habits and devoted to the development of photography, Atget struggled unnoticed for most of his life. It wasn't until his death that his art drew comments such as this one from Ansel Adams: "The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art."
Orphaned at a young age, Atget was raised by his uncle. He worked as a cabin boy and a sailor before entering the Conservatoir d'Art Dramatique in Paris, but Atget was impatient with school. He left abruptly and hiked out to the Paris suburbs, where he joined up with a local theater troupe and met Valentine Delafosse, his life-long companion. Neither was a success as an actor, so they eventually left the theater and in 1898 returned to the city.
The Industrial Revolution was then sweeping through Paris, bringing with it modern architecture, gadgets, and urban planning. The vast changes in the city generated a nostalgic demand for photographs of the old Paris. At the ripe age of 40, Atget responded to this call and took up the profession of photographer. His commercial studio, called Documents pour artistes, sold his catalogued images to painters, craftsmen, interior decorators, and official bodies such as the Muse Carnavalet and BibliothÃ¨que Nationale.
A lover of nineteenth-century French literature, Atget sought to preserve its setting. Over the following 30 years, he took more than 10,000 photographs of street vendors, architectural details, old buildings threatened by demolition, road workers, peddlers, garbage collectors, prostitutes, and more. Atget's photographs isolate the specific character of a building and allow the viewer to see it through the eyes of the pedestrian. His models never posed. His scenes were never orchestrated. He aimed for simplicity and tried to capture the aged beauty of a rapidly changing city.
Atget's methods were as old as the environment and icons he sought to document. When his neighbor Man Ray offered him a new Rolleiflex camera, he declined, explaining that the machine worked faster than he could think. Until his death, Atget's sole instrument was his glass-plate view camera with a short-focus rectilinear lens, a wooden tripod, and a few plate holders.
In 1926 Man Ray published a few of Atget's photographs in the magazine La Revolution Surrealiste. It was Atget's first appearance in print; he died a year later. Bernice Abbott (who was once one of Atget's subjects) published the first book-length collection of his work in 1930. She wrote: "[Atget] will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization." [show less]