Ambarin Afsar attempts to create a portrait of Eugène Atget, whose visual records of French culture, inspired generations of photographers.
This article was originally published in January 2014.
When we look at a certain city that has been our home, it is inevitably through sepia-tinted glasses. Our recollections are coloured by nostalgia and a love for its streets that have been many homes to many people. There is a sense of time stilled, and the hours, passing. Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget’s views of Old Paris poised on the brink of a new century and modernity, similarly transcend both time, and space. Almost theatrical in nature, they seem like scenes set for the stage, awaiting their actors.
From the Sea to the Stage
Atget was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, Paris on 12 February 1857.
He joined the merchant navy, and moved to Paris in 1878. Interestingly enough, he turned from the sea to the stage and gave an entrance exam for a drama school. At first, he failed, but was admitted at a second try. Soon, he was drafted for military service and could attend classes only part time, causing him to be expelled from the school. And so, he started acting with a travelling group, performing in the suburbs of Paris and the provinces. It was here that he met Valentine Compagnon, an actress, and his companion until her death.
In 1887, aged 30, he gave up acting because of an infection of the vocal chords, and moved to the provinces, tentatively experimenting with painting.
A Lifetime’s Passion Takes Root
Atget was 40 years of age in 1897, when he began what would mark him for life, photography. The sign on his door read, ‘Documents for Artists’—he used to make pictures of whatever artists needed as models for their work. His clients included painters, illustrators, sculptors and designers of theatre sets.
“The first time I saw Atget’s photos, their impact was tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition. The subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity.”
The Obsession with the Mundane
In the late 1890s, he became obsessed with what he called modest documents of the city and its environment. Everything, from architecture and landscapes to artifacts that denoted French culture and its history, became a subject for him. However, he rarely photographed people, preferring streets, gardens, courtyards and other areas that constituted the stage. Soon, institutions such as the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, a public library, started buying his photos. In 1906, the Bibliothèque commissioned him to photograph old buildings in Paris.
Three Decades on the Street
He roamed the streets with his bellows camera, rectilinear lenses and a wooden tripod for about thirty years. And of this he wrote, “For more than 20 years by my own work and initiative, I have gathered from all the old streets of Vieux Paris photographic plates, 18 x 24 format, artistic documents of the beautiful civil architecture of the 16th–19th century: the old hôtels, historic or curious houses, facades, doors, woodwork, door knockers, old fountains… This vast artistic and documentary collection is today complete. I can truthfully say that I possess all of Vieux Paris.”
During World War I, Atget temporarily stored his archives in the basement for safekeeping and almost completely stopped shooting. It was during this time that his adoptive son, Léon, was killed at the front.
In the 1920s, he started selling his work to various institutions, and set about to making pictures of the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud, and so on. This was also when he produced a series of photos of prostitutes.
A Kindred Spirit
Berenice Abbott came across his work while assisting Man Ray—Atget was Ray’s neighbour. She persuaded Atget to pose for her, making the only known portraits of him. After his demise in 1927, she was stunned to learn that his images were largely orphaned and set about collating his life’s work, which would, incidentally, turn into her lifelong campaign. Atget had also voiced the fear of his work disappearing. “Now that I am approaching old age—that is to say, 70 years old—and have neither heir nor successor, I am tormented about the future of this beautiful collection of negatives, which could fall into hands unaware of its import and ultimately disappear, without benefiting anyone.”
“A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.”
Layers Upon Layers
Due to Abbott’s efforts, Atget’s work achieved critical acclaim. He acquired “the reputation of a photographer who hid his hand so deftly that the viewer was misled into thinking that no photographer existed.” There was something about his style that seemed simple and rough upon first glance, yet at deeper investigation, revealed profound depths.
Surrealist artists blurred the lines between reality and dreams with strange juxtapositions. These were images that were created artificially. However, Atget’s images of storefronts that combined mannequins and reflections from the street showed that the world created its own juxtapositions for the camera. The world presented strange montages for his lens, and he put the layers together, creating shifting contexts and realities.
A Study in Seeing
Atget’s body of work had me puzzled for a while. A few images seemed whimsical, while a few others seemed as if they had been made out of the sheer joy of seeing visual elements come together.
It helped me realise that the true worth of a body of images is cumulative. One simply cannot pigeonhole images as belonging to architecture, documentary, nature or acting as studies in anthropology and sociology. The simple, the complex, the whimsical, the abstract, the layered, all come together to form a single beautiful structure.
Tags: Ambarin Afsar, Eugene Atget, French, Great Masters, january 2014, Street Photography
“To Atget the visible world became the stage; man himself and the effects of man, the great drama. Men and women in the Paris streets became the cast of characters.” —Berenice Abbott