Eugène Atget

Eugène Atget

Eugène Atget was a French saunterer and the founder of documentary photographic technique. It was his fortitude to document the entire architectural landscape and street views of Paris prior to its transformation to modernism. At the time he was alive, his work received limited recognition however he did not live to see the way his work eventually gained acknowledgement.

Atget was born in Lilbourne on 2nd February 1857. His father died five years after his birth and his mother also left the world soon after. He was raised by his grand parents. After completing his secondary schooling, Atget joined the merchant marine. In 1878, he shifted to Paris  and wanted to take drama classes, however because he was occupied with services in the military, he couldn’t take the course. But he still became an actor with the help of a travelling drama group and during this time met Valentine Delafosse, actress, who remained his companion till she died. Later, Atget left acting due to vocal chords infection in 1887.

Then he moved towards photography. His first images of Beauvais and Ameins date back to 1888. At the time, photography was becoming a popular skill especially in fields of commercialism and those that were just rising. By 1890, Atget became a specialized photographer. He supplied study documents to designers, architects and painters. He sold images of flowers, landscape and other content of interest to the buyers.

From 1897, his photographs were bought by associations like Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris and Musée Carnavalet which also commissioned Atget to take pictures of old architecture; and Musée Carnavalet. A year later, he went to Montoparnasse.

In order to take pictures of Paris, he worked with a large format camera that had a swift rectilinear lens. From 1897 until 1927, Eugène Atget captured the beauty of Paris at the time before the landscape of the city changed. His photos show shops, courtyards, narrow streets, old buildings, palaces, quays, and bridges. In addition, he also shot architectural details, apartment interiors. He even stretched his photographic exploration to the suburbs of Paris. Apart from the still lifes, he also took pictures of rag collectors, prostitutes and tradesmen.

Even though Atget’s new career was photography, he still believed himself to be an actor and hence gave readings and lectures at places to students. However, during the first world war, Atget quit photography and kept his photo archives in the basement of his house.

In 1921, Atget sold several of his photographic negatives to various institutions. After the war, he started photographing parks in Sceaux, Saint Cloud and Versailles. Apart from this, he also took images of prostitutes.

Eugène Atget’s work is filled with a wide array of subjects and with interesting techniques, such as long exposures and wide views. Other photographers and artists like Henri Matisse, André Derain, Picasso and Man Ray praised Atget’s work. Ray offered Atget his new camera to work with since they were neighbors, however Atget only wanted to work using old techniques.

Just as Paris was beginning to be transformed, Atget created a memory of the Paris that once existed. After his death, his photo archive was split among Berenice Abbott and an institute in Paris. Two years later, some of his photos were exhibited in Stuttgart at Film und Foto Werkbund. The United States Library of Congress holds twenty prints of Atget’s work. In 1968, Museum of Modern Art bought his photos. A retrospective of his work was held in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale in 2007.

Eugène Atget Photos