Eugene Atget (1857 – 1927) was described by Joel Meyerowitz as “The bedrock we [modern photographers] stand on’.
Atget worked in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. He described his work as ‘documents for artists’ and made photographs with the intention that artists would buy them to use as references. He shot doorways, condemned buildings, prostitutes, and interiors of people’s houses. He would not be well known today if not for the coincidence that Man Ray lived nearby, and stumbled across his work, introducing him to Bernice Abbott who managed to collect and publicise Atget’s work.
Atget’s photographs are not just documents, they have a clear sense of vision that often has surrealist tendencies. ManRay was heard to say that “Atget did not realise he was Atget.”
Atget is important because his work has a sense of vision. We might think he was lucky to be living in an especially photogenic city at a photogenic time in history, but the point is that this would have been ordinary to Atget. Atget managed to find the special in the ordinary. That’s his challenge to us – to find the special in the ordinary of our surroundings.
Usually Atget’s landscapes are empty of people – partly due to the long exposures his equipment required – his gear was already old fashioned when he was active. This often gives his work a surreal, ghost-town quallity.
The shot below does have a person, but with their back turned to us, sitting in isolation, their presence seems to accentuate the ghost-town quality.
WHere people do occur it as either as illustrations of the various occupations of Parisians, or in strange and surreal settings such as the one below – the people are actually viewing a solar eclipse.
The parks of Paris were a favorite subject of Atget’s. The image below with its surreal topiary and absence of people is one my my personal favourites of his.
He aslo seemed to have a sense of the way empty, unused fairgrounds can appear quite macabre.
Atget often appears in his own photographs – under the heavy black hood that his antiquated gear required him to use. In the image below, a face inside the glass door seems to sit on the reflection of Atget and his camera.
Another recurring theme is doorways. Below the doorway is a portal into a private courtyard.
Staircases also feature frequently.
Frequently Atget used shop windows as a subject, the mannequins mixing with the reflection of the exterior.
The image below is typical of the work that endeared Atget to the Surrealist group, which included artists such as Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Max Earnst.