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April 29, 2012


Eugène Atget Exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet

by soundlandscapes

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:

Musée Carnavalet

23, rue de Sévigné

75003 Paris

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

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 29 2012

    There is everything I like : “my” Paris, old photos and an historical testimony. I knew this name Atget but I was unable to say anything about one the pioneer of the photography. Thanks for this post.

    • Apr 29 2012

      Thanks for your comment and I’m so pleased that you liked this post. Atget’s work is very compelling and, if you get chance, you really should go to this exhibition. I’m sure you will enjoy it.

  2. Apr 29 2012

    I love these interior recordings that you present, the shuffling feet, the subdued coughs, and hushed voices. They could reflect a time past present or future. I’d never heard of this photographer, so thanks for bringing him to our attention. His focus is a good dose of motivation.

    • Apr 30 2012

      Thanks Jay. At the exhibition I was so totally engrossed in the photographs that I was completely unaware of the sounds. It was only when I listened to the recording later that I actually heard what had been surrounding me. I find it fascinating that I could blank out the sounds because they weren’t essential to me but if the place had been in total silence I would have been very aware of it. I agree that these sounds do have a timeless quality to them.

  3. May 4 2012

    We will be in Paris while this exhibit is still on. I had read about it and made a note to go. Your article is a special incentive and very, very well done. Thanks for taking the time!

    • May 5 2012

      Thank you for your comment. I hope you enjoy your trip to Paris and I’m sure you will enjoy this exhibition … as well as the rest of the Musée Carnavalet.

  4. May 14 2012

    Hi again – just a quick note to thank you on behalf os some friends who are staying in Paris at the moment. After forwarding the link to your site they went to the exhibition and said that it has been the best thing they’ve seen so far. Any more recommendations?

    • May 14 2012

      So pleased to hear that your friends enjoyed the Atget exhibition. As for other things …there is an exhibition of the work of Henri Matisse (60 pictures I believe) at the Beaubourg – Pompidou Centre, rue Beaubourg, 75004, Paris. I haven’t been yet but it has had good reviews. For photography exhibitions the Fondation Cartier-Bresson, 2 Impasse Lebouis, 75014, Paris is always good value as is the Magnum Gallery, 13 rue de l’Abbeye, 75006, Paris. Hope this helps.

  5. Jun 7 2012

    Hello! I just wanted to say I love the blog – I’m currently living in Paris and have started my own blog at and am about to write an article on the Atget exhibition – this was a great read!! Thank you!

    • Jun 7 2012

      Thank you. Atget has always been a favourite of mine. I am captivated by his vision of Vieux Paris and his dedication in recording it. Good luck with your blog. I’ve had a look. You write beautifully so I’m sure it will be a big success.


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