AS THE VERY SUCCESSFUL Bernice Abbott exhibition comes to a close in the Jeu de Paume, an exhibition of the work of the man who inspired her, Eugène Atget, opens in the Musée Carnavalet. I went along to see it and was enthralled by it.
Listening to the pictures:
Atget is somewhat of an enigma. Today he is the most celebrated of all the photographers of Vieux Paris, Old Paris, but when he died in 1927 scarcely anyone had heard of him.
Eugène Atget photographed by Bernice Abbott in 1927
He was born in 1857 in modest circumstances in Libourne in the Gironde. As a young man he seemed to fail at everything he turned his hand to. He tried acting, soldiering and painting but failed at all three. His only success was to meet and to marry Valentine Delafosse-Compagnon, an actress who was devoted to him.
Atget and Valentine moved to Paris and around 1890, in order to make a living, he took up photography. Initially he produced study material for artists, images of trees, flowers and various objects for artists to incorporate into their compositions. It was towards the end of the 1890’s that he changed direction and set out to make a systematic photographic record of Paris. He photographed everything – the streets, the shops fronts, the tradesmen, the interiors and architectural details – he captured every aspect of Vieux Paris.
Atget worked hard. Every day was spent on the streets of Paris laden with cumbersome equipment, a bellows camera, glass plates in plate holders, a focusing cloth, a lens case and a wooden tripod. He eschewed the new flexible negatives that had become available which made life easier; he preferred to remain faithful to his old equipment and old habits. He travelled everywhere by bus or Metro carrying all his equipment.
In Atget’s world, photography was not only hard work it was really quite technical too. He used an 18 x 24 cm plate camera with a rectilinear lens. This is a lens, still in use today, that ensures that the vertical lines of buildings always remain vertical. He liked to work in the early morning because he preferred the light at that time and this resulted in lots of photographs with quite eerie empty streets and ghostly people.
Virtually all the Atget photographs we see today are albumen prints. The paper was sold impregnated with whipped and salted egg white which the photographer soaked in a bath of silver nitrate. Sensitised and dried, the paper was laid in the printing frame with the glass negative and exposed to sunlight until an image appeared, then fixed and toned with a salt of gold.
But it is not for his technical mastery that Atget will be remembered. It is rather for his day in day out unrelenting work recording the face of Paris that was constantly changing. He was not interested in Haussmann’s Paris – rich, grand, pretentious – but in a picturesque section of a wall that was on the point of collapsing, or in any touching or unexpected detail. Although his technique belongs to the nineteenth-century, his vision belongs firmly with us today.
On show at the exhibition are of some of Atget’s most well know photographs along with some pictures that have never been exhibited before.
I recommend this exhibition as a ‘must see’ for anyone with an interest in this wonderful city.
The exhibition EUGÈNE ATGET, PARIS runs from 25th April to 29th July 2012 at:
23, rue de Sévigné
Tél. : 01 44 59 58 58
Open every day from 10 h to 18 h except Mondays and public holidays.
Tarif: 7 euros
Nearest Metro: Saint-Paul; Line 1