Inductee Sponsor: Kurt Jafay
Eugene Atget was a French photographer noted for his photographs documenting the architecture and street scenes of Paris. Berenice Abbott once said, in reference to Atget’s photographs…Their impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition—the shock of realism adorned. The subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity. The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise, was mirrored in each print.
It is quite possible, if Berenice Abbott had not “discovered” Eugene Atget, he and his images may have never been known to the photography world. Primarily a documentary photographer, Atget photographed every aspect of Paris and Parisian life. Many of his images were purchased by the Historical Library of Paris because of their important documentary history of the city. After two wars, many of Paris’ historical streets and buildings had been lost, with the only recording by Atget. Atget’s work was more comprehensive than anything previously attempted in European photography; in fact, Atget was the first photographer to undertake the description of a city in such detailed and extensive terms. But he was even more ambitious than that. When he refers to his work as a whole—“This enormous artistic and documentary collection”—Atget joins the idea of documentation to that of art. However, Atget began his photography career late in life. His first love was the sea.
Born on February 12 in the port city of Libourne, Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget was the only child of Jean-Eugene and Clara. His father was a carriage maker, who soon became a traveling salesman. Atget lost his father at the age of five when he died in June of 1862. Clara only survived her husband briefly and Atget was orphaned. Some sources indicate Atget was raised by his uncle who was a successful bureaucrat with a national railway system. This account states that the young Atget was educated in Parisian “better-than-average” Catholic schools with the hopes that he would become a priest. Another source states Atget was raised by his maternal grandparents. In this account, his upbringing was modest, and it can only be assumed he was educated in free public schools. The love of the sea and desire to become a sailor would support the latter account of his younger years, as he would have remained in Bordeaux with his grandparents. It is here that the two differing histories merge. With school finished, Atget signed on to a merchant vessel as a cabin boy. His ports are not well known, however Africa and Uruguay have been named several times. Atget abandoned this lifestyle and returned to Paris (depending on which history you choose), around 1878-1879.
Upon his arrival in Paris, Atget applied to the National Conservatory of Music and Drama. He was turned down the first time and then drafted by the army. After serving a year in the Sixty-third Infantry Division, Atget reapplied to the school and was finally admitted. Atget now had to juggle the full-time commitment to the army and his new found love of drama. Edmond Got, Atget’s professor, was a popular actor at the Comedie Francaise and also considered to be one of the best instructors. Although Got was fond of Atget’s work and gave him high marks on exams, he did express concern, stating his career as a soldier—which he must continue for at least another year—allows him very little time to study, which is a pity, for despite his accent, he has qualities. However, unable to maintain life as a soldier and give full time to study, Atget was eventually expelled from the school. He finished his duty as a soldier and pursued acting. For many years he had various stage jobs in “third roles”. He was not an attractive man and was never given a role as the lead or co-star. Despite pay, place or audience, Atget continued acting with a passion. With his many travels and acquaintances in the small theaters, he met his wife, his “aime”, and his long-time friend Andre Calmettes. Atget and his wife, Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, several years his senior, were together until her death just one year before his own. Jobs in the theatre soon became more and more scarce, and Atget was once again forced to find another source of financial means.
He had always been interested in painting. In a letter to Berenice Abbott, his long-time friend Andre Calmettes wrote we had, both of us, a great interest in painting and we knew many painters. Was Atget to become one of them? No, after several attempts he decided to become a photographer, a photographer of Art. For some time he had had the ambition to create a collection of all that which both Paris and its surroundings was artistic and picturesque. An immense subject. Atget procured for himself a camera and, loaded down with plates, he took off. He was self-taught and only purchased the bare necessities. In the early years of photography, however bare, the equipment was extremely bulky and heavy. Atget photographed Paris obsessively, getting up before dawn, day after day, to be in the streets with the first morning light. He lugged a bulky wooden view camera, a tripod, and glass negatives in heavy wooden holders—almost forty pounds worth of equipment—through the city; into the surrounding countryside; and often as far as Versailles and Saint-Cloud. Now the problem was how and to whom to sell the photographs. So precise were Atget’s photographs that libraries and historical societies bought many images, as it would come to be after two wars many of Paris’ architectural treasures were lost. Other artists, such as painters and sculptors, would purchase his images to assist in their painting endeavors. Paris and her old churches, her monuments, her miseries and her treasures were photographed by Atget. Possessed by a sure taste and artistic audacity that was extraordinary; Atget came to be known by painters, sculptors, architects and editors. He sold his documents; proud and happy, he made a living from his work for himself and his companion. The difficulties had appeared to be insurmountable but Atget triumphed over them. Known only within certain circles, it was not until Berenice Abbott who first “discovered” Atget in the studio of Man Ray in 1925, that his fate was to one day be recognized as one of photography’s great masters.
My excitement at seeing these few photographs would not let me rest. Who was this man? I learned that Atget lived up the street from where I worked—at 17 bis rue Campagne Premiere, and that his prints were for sale. Perhaps I could own some. I wanted to see more, and lost no time in seeking him out. I mounted the four flights to his fifth floor apartment. On the door was a modest handmade sign, “Documents pour Artistes”. He ushered me into a room approximately fifteen feet long, the ordinary room of a small apartment, sparsely and simply furnished. Atget, slightly stooped, impressed me as being tired, sad, remote, appealing. He was not talkative. He did not try to “sell” anything. He showed me some albums, which he had made himself, and I selected as many prints as I could afford to pay for from my meager wages as a photographer’s assistant. I returned many times, and we became more friendly. Several years passed and Berenice Abbott became a portrait photographer. By that time I had become a portrait photographer on my own, and I persuaded Atget to come to my studio at 44 rue du Bac to sit for his portrait. To my surprise he arrived in a handsome overcoat. I had always seen him in his patched work clothes. It would have been desirable to photograph him in these too, since they were exquisitely photogenic, but time is a fickle unpredictable master and did not permit another sitting. After developing the portraits she took the images to show Atget. Abbott missed the sign and made one more flight of stairs to find the concierge. She asked about Atget and was shocked to hear that he had died. Youth is little equipped to accept or even anticipate the fact of death. And I had just finished his portraits. Inquiring about his collection of photographs, she found that they had been left to Andre Calmette. It took months of correspondence and convincing, but she eventually acquired Atget’s entire collection. Abbott also wrote a book about Atget and published many of his prints. Many critics have attacked Atget’s work, saying Atget was merely a disappointed painter or actor, and a little ashamed of his medium. Claims have been made that Atget did not really know what he was doing, that reflections in his shop front windows were accidents which he did not even see. Berenice Abbott fiercely defended Atget and his work. Goethe had said, “there is no variety of Art that should be looked upon lightly. Each has delights which great talent can bring to fulfillment.” If Atget had not had this talent he would have been just another record producer of the travel guide variety—tourist fare. I believe the photographer’s eye develops to a more intense awareness than other people’s, as a dancer develops his muscles and limbs, and a musician his ear. The photographer’s act is to see the outside world precisely, with intelligence as well as sensuous insight. This act of seeing sharpens the eye to an unprecedented acuteness. He often sees swiftly an entire scene that most people would pass unnoticed. Capturing the city of Paris and its people was the photographic art of Atget. How one becomes a photographer, well-schooled or self-taught, does not matter. Ultimately, it is the test of time. As with many of the world’s great photographer’s, their images are timeless and still have the appeal as when first developed. Not only did Atget document a city; he also captured its essence.
Atget was never exhibited during his life and died virtually unknown in August of 1927. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, soon acquired Atget’s collection of prints from Berenice Abbott. Eugene Atget is now considered one of the great photographers of his time. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.
By Lori Oden for IPHF