MoMA’s current New Photography 2011 exhibition has inspired me to revisit the Museum’s books on photography. John Szarkowski’s monograph on Eugène Atget, titled Atget, has been particularly useful for placing themes from New Photography 2011 within an art historical context. The book, originally published in 2000, has been out of print for several years, but was recently released as a digital edition for the MoMA Books iPad app. An inspiration for photographers interested in both the surreal and the everyday, Atget is remembered for his ingenuity, and as one of photography’s most perceptive figures.
Many of the works on view in New Photography 2011 share a common theme with Atget’s oeuvre—both Atget and the new generation of photographers represented in the exhibition assume the roles of witness and archivist in order to capture both personal and regional histories. For instance, Atget took a nearly diaristic approach to documenting doorknockers in Paris during the late 1800s and early 1900s; rue de Mail (1908), a detailed photograph of a door knocker in featured in Atget, is one such example of this practice. A comparable series by Moyra Davey in New Photography 2011, titled Rester Calme (2010), consists of detailed photographs of light fixtures. While looking at these photographs by Atget and Davey, I think about how the delicacy of these objects might have been lost to us without the contemplation and record of their photographers.
Another work in the exhibition, Deanna Lawson’s Altar (2010), depicts a windowsill cluttered with miscellany and ephemera. A similar scene is depicted in Atget’s Ambassade d’Autriche, 57 rue de Varenne (1905), which features an ornate mantel with a timepiece and mirror at the Austrian Embassy in Paris. In regard to this work by Atget, Szarkowski’s annotation points to the disembodied image of Atget’s camera reflected in the mirror. In both Lawson’s and Atget’s photographs, there is a subtle indication of human presence.
In one of my favorite texts published by MoMA, Photography: Essays & Images, a passage from Berenice Abbot praises Atget: ”[He] was not ‘aesthetic.’ His was a dominating passion that drove him to fix Life. With the marvelous lens of dream and surprise, he ‘saw’ (that is to say, photographed) practically everything about him, in and outside Paris, with the vision of a poet.” Like Atget, the artists in New Photography 2011 work to fix Life today, inventing new lenses in order to “see” the world around them.