Capturing the heart of a city
In a magazine that usually focuses on South Asia, why review an exhibition of Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris, showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney? First, this is an outstanding exhibition, by a man who virtually invented a new category of photography. But there’s another reason. Atget worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Paris that he captures is a city in flux, where the old is rapidly giving way to the new. Arcades are being replaced by department stores, horse-drawn carts are giving way to cars and trams, and grand developments are replacing slums and overcrowded neighbourhoods. This is not so different from the Indian cities of today. Atget’s genius was that he thought to capture the old before it vanished completely. Somebody should do the same for Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Bangalore – and so on.
Although he was ‘discovered’ and widely admired by such influential photographers as Berenice Abbott and Man Ray, Atget never saw himself as anything more than a craftsman. Having failed as a painter, he set himself up as a photographer in the 1890s, with a prosaic aim. He would document the street scenes of Paris, and sell his prints for artists to use as models. Studiously avoiding the heroic new Paris that was under construction at this time – the Eiffel Tower is probably the most glaring example – he concentrated on the alleys and courtyards, the markets and gardens, the drinking dens and old houses that would very soon be gone. Sacré Coeur and Notre Dame both make appearances, but in the background, behind more ordinary structures. A passport-size photo of the photographer reveals a burly, workmanlike face; a later portrait, by Abbott not long before his death, has him turned modestly away from the camera, a shrunken man in a dark overcoat. Abbott had hoped to photograph him in his patched workclothes, which she felt would have revealed so much more about the artist.
The 181 photographs in this exhibition show Atget to have been much more than a chronicler of his time. An instinctive feeling for composition and perspective marks each one, drawing the eye into scenes that appear to have no natural point of focus. One photo shows no more than a flagstoned footpath running between two walls, with bare branches protruding overhead. It is enough. Most of the pictures lack a human presence, airbrushed out by long exposures, or deliberately avoided by the photographer. They convey an eerie sense of a deserted city, perhaps foreshadowing its looming submission to the demands of modernity and the car. Occasionally Atget’s figure makes a barely-discernible reflection in a shop window, truncated by a door- or window-frame; yet his personality suffuses the work as surely as the photo chemicals that reportedly stained his hands. The merit of his work was well understood – within a decade of starting out, he had sold collections of pictures to the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Paris, the Musée Carnavalet, and the Musée de la Sculpture Comparée.
When Atget does photograph people, he focuses on the underclass – street vendors, prostitutes, rag-and-bone men camped in slums outside the city – and captures them with great empathy. One frame catches an exchange between a furniture hawker and a customer, the only photograph of its kind in the show; another finds the great photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue as a young boy, utterly immersed in an open-air puppet show. The viewer gets the sense that there are many more subtleties buried in the work, where life is documented in minute measurements, which would only appear after dedicated study.
Atget used an 18 x 24 cm view camera with glass plate negatives, developing the film himself. He contact-printed the work in sunlight, judging the density by eye, and never enlarged his work. This practice gives the show a uniformity that speaks of both seriousness and simplicity. The small size of the prints encourages close examination, creating an intimacy that discourages casual browsing. The viewer is forced to see.
Although Atget’s approach was minimalist, his work is divided into eight sections for the purposes of the exhibition. They read like a Yellow Pages: Vehicles, Gardens, Interiors, Small Trades, Shops and Shop Displays. Yet the photographer’s versatility is profound: each section coheres strongly within itself. A series of studies of trade symbols over doorways gives a glimpse into a vanished city; the interior shots of his own home reveal an unpretentious clutter; the pictures of public gardens display a luminous beauty, one after another after another. Leaving the gallery, you feel as if you know this city, even though it vanished 80 or more years ago. As the photographer himself wrote in 1920, “I may say that I have in my possession the whole of Paris.”