Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was a pioneer of documentary photography, and is now famous for his street scenes of Paris, which provide an invaluable sense of the city in the years following the destruction of the Commune and what came to be known in retrospect as “la Belle Époque”. His work was discovered just two years before his death by a couple of young American photographers—Berenice Abbott and Man Ray; the Surrealists regarded him, to his bewilderment, as a kind of Cézanne. His technique was already antiquated by the 1900s, but his insistence of using a large-format plate and bellows camera and photographing in the early morning gives his work a sense of space and enigma. Atget left no statements about his photographs.
There is a famous profile portrait of him, gaunt-cheeked, old and slightly gibbous, the face luminously pale above the black coat and trousers, the monumental line of the costume broken only by the soft white blur of the hand. It is an ash-and-clinker photograph, as weighty and dark as Whistler’s famous painting of his mother. It dates from the last year of his life, 1927, when he was known to every self-respecting surrealist, if not to the public: the picture was taken by the young American photographer Berenice Abbott in her studio on the rue du Bac; her boyfriend, Man Ray, had been neighbour to the photographer in his little trois-pièces at 17 bis, rue Campagne-Première, a spartanly utile studio-apartment which turns up in many of his prints, and had asked him to sit for her. Eugène Atget was in the retail trade. The sign on his door read simply: “Documents pour artistes.”
His first biographer had problems finding out anything at all about the early life of Jean-Eugène Auguste Atget. Born in humble circumstances at Libourne in Gascony in 1857, he was brought up in Bordeaux. He roamed France as a touring player, met and married his considerably older wife Valentine while doing the round of provincial theatres, and was paid off at the age of 30. His strong south-west accent had led to him being typecast as a stage Gascon too. He painted, in Paris, for a decade; also without success. It was only towards 1897, having made a modest niche for himself as a producer of photographic images for artists, that he started doing the documentary work that would eventually secure his name. Like many contemporary institutions, the heritage industry actually goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Committee for Old Paris was set up to document everyday life in the French capital. As a voracious reader of Victor Hugo, Atget would have remembered the exiled writer lamenting the disappearance of the old Paris: what he was photographing was the modern city that had been created in the middle of the century on the orders of the Préfet de la Seine known to his compatriots as The Ripper (“l’Eventreur”). The poets gave Haussmann such a bad name as Napoleon III’s wrecker that his reputation has never quite recovered: many modern Parisians still think of him with distaste, as if he had laid waste to the city rather than created a modern imperial capital. In fact it was Haussmann who “aerated” the smelly slums of the old medieval city, made provision for large parks at either end (the Bois de Boulogne and the Parc de Vincennes), laid down proper plumbing and sewers for the new quartiers and planned what is still one of the best urban transport systems in the world. His boulevards of solid six-storey apartment blocks were lined with the plane-trees that Rabelais is rumoured to have introduced to France in the sixteenth century. Paris had to wear a new architectural style. But thirty years later it was the classic style: the city had become the model for urban planners from Cairo to Buenos Aires.
Atget started on two series of photographs, making a distinction between animate life and what we might call the architectural sublime. The first series, Paris pittoresque, reproduced street scenes and markets, including the poultry racks and fish counters at the old Halles, the famous “belly of Paris”; the second, Le Vieux Paris, documented the city’s parks, squares and buildings. In 1900, he was to spend months seeking out less noticed features of the city, photographing balconies, stairwells, street signs and other decorative paraphernalia, before doing a series of topographical studies after a commission from the librarians of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. It was only in 1910 that he went back to his Paris pittoresque series, with a renewed sense of purpose: this time he recorded the bars and stores of Paris, as well as the ordinary people who moved about in them: the bouqainistes with their stalls along the Seine, the poor people of St Merry, the blistered endwalls with their posters and advertisements, legions of costermongers, barrowmen and hawkers. Paris is a warren of urban hamlets from which the suburbs of the Zone—the non-constructible girdle around its old medieval wall—are about to mushroom. The war years obliged him to take stock: Atget found himself in possession of one of the most complete visual records of the city. He wrote to Paul Léon, principal historiographer at the Service des monuments historiques offering his plates to the nation. So began a process that was completed only after his death in August 1927: the attribution of thousands of his glass negatives and prints to museums and institutions across the world, from The Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Atget, Emmanuel Songez has written, “never realised that he was Atget.” That is patronising: he never put on the airs and graces of an artist. Eugène Atget was an artisan, a tradesman who happened to own a camera. The 1910 print “Intérieur du photographe” shows a spartan studio with desks and chairs, reams of paper, pots of paint and chemicals and a few illustrations on the wall that could have been any kind of tradesman’s workshop. Atget expected no more than the traditional respect (and payment) for a job well done. What he was producing were true likenesses that required no artistic formalisation beyond the framing of a scene. He even asked May Ray not to attribute to him the photographs reproduced in issues 7 and 8 of La Révolution surréaliste, including the cover image of the crowd gazing at the solar eclipse of 1912.
His working life was arduous. Atget carried his equipment everywhere with him: an 18 x 24 cm plate and bellows camera, a wooden tripod, and the glass plates that allowed him to make his albumin prints. All in all it weighed about twenty kilograms, a stack of items which gives another sense to Susan Sontag’s quip that the photographer is an “armed version of the solitary walker.” Atget’s day was a labour of Hercules. He travelled everywhere by Métro and bus. His photos indicate that they were taken from a low height, presumably with him sitting on his box of plates. Often he photographed in the light of early morning, which meant getting up before the very first streaks of Baudelaire’s crépuscule de l’aube. There are no vehicles in his Le Vieux Paris series, and the city seems weirdly chaste: the streets are empty, the cobblestones glossy in the rain, the glass fronts impenetrable. Twenty years later, Paris would be a byword for traffic-jams. The painter Giorgio de Chirico, another artist who lived on the rue Campagne-Première, was fascinated by Atget’s contours and textures, which lend his buildings and monuments a brooding stillness and density, and impart an atmosphere of desolation and mystery. The same could be said of his “metaphysical” paintings, which prompted his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire to come up with the term “surréaliste” in 1913. “A glory of which I could not speak filled me then like a shimmering of sunlight,” confesses the narrator in James Salter’s breakthrough novel of the 1960s A Sport and a Pastime. “It was the ten thousand famous photographs Atget had made of a Paris now gone, those great, voiceless images bathed in the brown of gold chloride…”
Empty and elusive, Atget’s prints are rendered even more mysterious by the blurred figures of onlookers moving through the camera’s field of vision as the picture was being taken, as in the famous picture of the waiter with his burly moustache at the door of L’Homme Armé, rue des Archives, 1901, or the phantasmal customers of Au tambour, quai de la Tournelle, 1908. People flit out of focus, or seem the ghosts of their own lives. Baudelaire had a political explanation for the power of black and white: “And observe that the black frock-coat and the tail-coat may boast not only their political beauty, which is the expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is the expression of the public soul.” In his eyes, democracy had brought about the death of genuine individuality, and following that death, democratic life could only be “an immense procession of undertakers’ mutes, political mutes, mutes in love, bourgeois mutes.”
It is doubtful whether Atget was visited by such sombre thoughts. He was a kind of prosaic primitivist who refused to adapt to the soft-focus pictorialist aesthetic of his time, which made use of gum bichromate to allow retouching and added “artistic” effects. Even when paper became readily available he stayed loyal to his heavy glass plates. Atget’s images were nearly all albumen prints developed in silver nitrate, then dried and toned with a gold salt. They are “clean” in a way that anticipates the disinfected functionalism that was to spread out of Weimar after the war, die neue Sachlichkeit. Their very lack of contrivances and willed distortions made them irresistible to the Surrealists; his scene of a shop-front display Vitrine, fête du Trône (le géant et le nain), 1925, is stranger than a Magritte painting. As Karl Marx wrote, commodities are queer things, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” If Atget was “a master of the realm of dreams” it was because he still had the ability to be startled by the city he lived in. Paris was all his theatre, and all the theatre he needed. Here is the Quai de Jemappes where the cars still have to wait for the lockbridge to close on the intermittent barges, and next to it the Hôtel du Nord, now a protected public monument even though Marcel Carné’s film of the same name was entirely shot in a studio location. I’ve even found earlier incarnations of my own temporary residences in Paris recorded years before my passage through them by Atget: a view along the rue St. Sulpice to the happy summer I spent above the bondieuserie shops in a tiny book-lined apartment that resounded to the matutinal bells; the corner apartment with a view of the former burial ground of Place des Innocents and, downstairs, Le Petit Ramoneur, one of the last working class restaurants in the rue St. Denis to dish up boeuf gros sel; or my address for a year in the rue de l’Arbre Sec, which turns up somewhere in the timeless writings of Jean de la Fontaine: some old books on historical Paris state that its name refers to the solitary tree in northern Persia mentioned in Marco Polo’s Travels, others suggest that it was the site for hanging wrongdoers in medieval Paris. Either origin seemed promising enough. Atget’s view of that street shows two tilted carts in front of a furrier’s shop “Fourrures Confectionnées” and next door, a haberdashery that was to become the Caveau François Villon, a restaurant with a noose hanging above the door as its commercial banner (and this lending support to the gibbet thesis concerning the street’s origins). I saw it every night when I went out of the door of my flat at number 47.
Walter Benjamin thought Atget’s photographs resembled those taken at the scene of a crime. The corpse must have been spirited away, unless Benjamin assumed that the city itself was the culprit. It is the general lack of passers-by which lends Atget’s views of Paris their uncanniness. Unlike the work of the photographers who followed him, especially Doisneau and Brassaï, Atget’s city is very nearly unpeopled. What is noticeable is the jagged geography of roof-top Paris, the chimney-pots stuck on in mad rows as a seeming afterthought, the streets seen from the rooftops as a river of bitumen at the bottom of a chasm, the blaze of the cafés on streets that, in living memory, had seen the atrocities of the Commune. Photographs are not transcendent: they are the unique traces of a historical reality that is no longer available to us as experience but which technology has turned into a historical index. It was Benjamin’s famous opinion that they take the “aura” out of reality; if anything, these relics of lost time have more aura than a viewer can absorb.
Which is why having inspected gallery upon gallery of them, I feel compelled to walk from the Marais along the rue St. Honoré again, something I haven’t done in ages, and skirt what used to be not just Paris’s belly but its underbelly (where, as Georges Brassens once lamented in one of his songs, “prêt-à-porter” has long since replaced the “andouillette”), and mingle with the evening shoppers—“la fine fleur de la populace”. After spending an afternoon with Atget’s ghost archaeology and the sepia-toned mute witnesses of what must have been a poorer but more joyous and unruly and unconventional city I simply had to hear some shouts in the street. The noise of now.
© Iain BAMFORTH, first published in The Good European, Carcanet, Manchester, 2006