Memoirs of Old Paris


Photograph by: Eugène Atget Image Source: J Paul Getty Museum

Eugène Atget tried his hands at more than one vocation before taking up photography and starting his lifelong project of documenting his beloved Paris, before it was consumed by the throes of modernisation. However, unlike the pictoralist trend that dominated photography aesthetics of the time, he adopted a documentarian approach while recording the city’s undiscovered landscapes, culture, history, artefacts and architectural splendours. In this inventory, he also included multiple shop windows and displays from around Paris, many of which featured vivid mannequin and product displays.

It was also during this time, in the mid 1880s, when haute couture made its way into women’s fashion and Paris became the world’s fashion capital. Yet, keeping true to his style of documentation, Atget avoided photographing subjects related to fashion or individual display. Instead, he focused on making pictures of storefronts and how shopkeepers showcased their products, like in this image shot in 1912. But, to simply say that Atget photographed shop windows would be undermining his work. The reflections of Paris’ old buildings and structures on the glass displays, along with the stationery mannequins, provided a juxtaposed view of the city’s spiral into consumerism and its dominating hold on the fashion industry.

Although Atget strived to create documents and not art, the metaphorical meanings in his later photographs got him the admiration of Man Ray, who went on to publish his images. He also purchased multiple prints and urged many more of his fellow Surrealists to take note of Atget’s pictures of the storefront mannequins, and their dreamlike comparison to the human form. Unfortunately, while he was alive, Atget did not receive the kind of acclaim he deserved for his work. He became widely known, only after Berenice Abbot brought his work into the public eye in 1930.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Better Photography.