Although two thirds of Eugène Atget's photographic career fell into the twentieth century, more than half of his life was lived in the nineteenth century and his esthetic roots were firmly grounded in the earlier period.
An orphan by the age of five, Eugène Atget, after insubstantial schooling in Bordeaux, was briefly a sailor before moving to Paris in1878 in order to attend acting school, which he fitfully did while completing compulsory military service. Dismissed from the school, nevertheless he toured the provinces in minor roles until 1887 when he gave up acting in order to take up painting. This too proved unrewarding and by 1888 he had established himself as a photographer in Clermont. In 1890 in Paris, to which he had again moved, he hung up a sign outside his apartment that read, “documents for artists.” These photographs were at first plant and animal studies and landscapes, but he soon embarked on what became an obsessive quest to visually capture the city of Paris, with particular attention to those aspects of its past that were vanishing. For this there was clear precedent in Charles Marville's work in the 1860s, but Marville had imperial patronage while Atget operated wholly on his own with only one important commission.
Gradually he built up a roster of clients, including public institutions like the Musée Carnavalet (the museum of the history of Paris), for the inventory of images he painstakingly assembled of the city's architecture, ancient streets, shop signs and storefront displays, street furniture like lamp posts, itinerant vendors, street fairs, and public markets. One group of photographs represents domestic interiors at various economic levels; another records the remnants of the city's fortifications. He carried out a very extensive series of pictures in public gardens in the city, like those of the Tuilleries and the Luxembourg, and in the old royal parks around the city, like those at Versailles, Fontainebleau, St. Cloud, and Sceaux. These systematically depict garden sculpture, fountains, pavilions, parterres, allées of shaped greenery, and individual venerable trees and only rarely are studies of the palaces in these parks.
In the notebooks in which he tracked his ever-expanding encyclopedia of the city and its surrounds, he placed the images in categories of his own invention, like “The Art of Old Paris” and “Picturesque Paris” and “The Environs of Paris.” Further, he noted likely buyers for various subjects and the hours at which his clients might likely be found at home. He intended the pictures to serve as references for artisans, illustrators, decorators, publishers, designers for textiles and the building trades, including workers in boiserie and wrought iron, and amateur and professional historians of the city. It is noteworthy that he did not photograph nineteenth-century constructions like Charles Garnier's Opera House or the Eiffel Tower, nor the grand boulevards that Haussmann had laid out, nor the elaborate mansions that had been constructed in the fashionable neighborhoods near the Arc de Triomphe. Atget's Paris is not a tourist's Paris. He was far more concerned with the city as experienced in everyday life, from the point of view of the pedestrian, moving around as he did, on foot, during countless solitary photographic rounds, often in less than ideal weather. It is characteristic of his outlook that when he made photographs of shop window displays, they were of unpretentious establishments instead of expensive boutiques. Streetside displays of vegetable vendors and the racks of second hand clothing stores were apt to figure in his works, with the occasional inclusion of a dozing shop attendant, an observant waiter, or a sleeping cat, all of which although inessential for his purposes augment the sense of the specific texture of ordinary Parisian life. Sideshow attractions at annual neighborhood street fairs were part of a long, but declining tradition, and were of as much interest to him as old structures currently housing modern enterprises like automobile repair shops. Junkyards and squatters’ shacks on the outskirts of the city were as appropriate subjects as garden prospects lined with eighteenth-century statues.
The photographs themselves were invariably contact prints, made from seven by nine inch glass negatives, which necessitated a satchel to carry them, and a tripod-mounted camera in which to place them for exposure. The negatives, of which there were eventually about 8500, were usually rendered as albumen prints, until albumen paper became unavailable about 1920 and he was forced to utilize gelatin silver paper. Occasionally, by rephotography, he enlarged portions of his negatives to produce pictures that showed at closer range the intricacies of decorative details in plaster, wood, or iron. He processed his negatives and produced his prints in his modest apartment without the help of assistants, except perhaps the actress, (aptly-named) Valentine Compagnon, whom he met in 1886, and who lived with him until her death shortly before his own in 1923. On the backs of his prints Atget invariably identified the places shown by inscribing street addresses or structure or site names and the number of the arrondissement. His knowledge of and interest in the history of Paris is confirmed by occasional supplemental inscriptions that provide information about a building's former use or the time of its construction.
Atget's importance lies not only in the trove of haunting but apparently straight-forward and objective images of nearly deserted streets of Paris that he produced, but also in the influence of the humble nature of his subject matter and his apparent objectivity on twentieth-century photographers like Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander. He provides an essential bridge between photography in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When toward the end of his life he was taken up by Man Ray and the Surrealists, who found inadvertent juxtapositions in his work that were unsettling and intriguing, Atget insisted that he did not have artistic aspirations, that the pictures were, as his sign said, simply meant as documents that could be useful to artists.
See also: Marville, Charles; Albumen Print; Dry Plate Negatives; and Gelatin Silver Print.