Working in and around Paris for some 35 years, in a career that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, Eugène Atget created an encyclopedic, idiosyncratic lived portrait of that city on the cusp of the modern era. His career began around 1890, when he hung a shingle reading, “Documents pour artistes” (Documents for artists) on a studio door in Paris’s fifth arrondissement. The sign declared his modest ambition of providing other artists with images to use as source material in their own work, and included such categories as “landscapes, animals, flowers, monuments, documents, foregrounds for painters, reproductions of paintings,” as a friend elaborated in the journal Revue des Beaux-Arts.1

Atget’s entry into the field of photography coincided with a series of developments within the medium. The 1880s were a period of tremendous growth for professional and amateur photography alike, as its commercial and industrial applications expanded. The invention of dry-plate photography—which allowed photographic plates to be prepared in advance and developed in a darkroom later—made it easier to make photographs quickly, while the rise of photomechanical reproduction allowed for the widespread distribution of photographic images. Despite these advancements, Atget used a bulky view camera and large (18 x 24 cm) glass plates.

Around 1900, Atget’s focus shifted. The city’s urban landscape had been recently reshaped by the modernization campaign known as Haussmannization—a necessarily destructive process led by (and named after) Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann that saw Paris’s medieval neighborhoods razed and transformed into wide avenues and public parks. Those changes, in turn, kindled a broad interest in vieux Paris (“old Paris”), the capital in its pre-Revolutionary, 18th-century form. Atget’s feeling for vieux Paris had been an integral part of his practice of making documents for other artists, but around 1900 that interest took center stage, as he established himself as a specialist in pictures of Paris. Indeed, his calling card from the period read, “E. Atget, Creator and Purveyor of a ‘Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris.’”2

Atget’s documentary vision proved highly influential, first on the Surrealists, in the 1920s, who found his pictures of deserted streets and stairways, street life, and shop windows beguiling and richly suggestive (these were published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1926, with a fourth, of a crowd gathered to watch an eclipse, on the cover); and then on two generations of American photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander. His reception outside France was also shaped by The Museum of Modern Art. In 1968 the Museum purchased the contents of his studio from the American photographer Berenice Abbott, who was first introduced to Atget’s work in 1925, while she was working as a studio assistant for Man Ray. Abbott became Atget’s posthumous champion, initiating the preservation of his archive and its transfer to New York. Comprising some 5,000 vintage prints and more than 1,000 glass plate negatives, it represents the largest and most significant collection of his work. In 1931, four years after Atget’s death, the American photographer Ansel Adams wrote, “The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”3

Introduction by Natalie Dupêcher, independent scholar, 2017

  1. Quoted in John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg, The Work of Atget, vol. 1 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981), 14.  

  2. Szarkowski and Hambourg, The Work of Atget, vol. II, 16.  

  3. Ansel Adams, in The Fortnightly (San Francisco) 1, no. 5 (Nov. 5, 1931), 25. 

Show full text
Eugène Atget (French: [adʒɛ]; 12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927) was a French flâneur and a pioneer of documentary photography, noted for his determination to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization. Most of his photographs were first published by Berenice Abbott after his death. An inspiration for the surrealists and other artists, his genius was only recognized by a handful of young artists in the last two years of his life, and he did not live to see the wide acclaim his work would eventually receive.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Atget took up commercial photography in the late 1880s after a few failed attempts as a painter and an actor. He made a living primarily as a documentary photographer - using his camera to record the architecture of 'Old Paris' as well as France' popular culture. Although he focused primarily on photography's ability to be a neutral recording device, some of his photographs from this earlier period reveal a more artistic endeavor. By 1920, Atget's photography had turned almost entirely toward a more suggestive and innovative approach to the medium. It is these photographs, taken from 1920 until his death, whose ability to transform the ordinary' into art earned Atget a name with the Surrealists and a place in the history of photography after his death. French photographer.
Artist, Photographer
Eugène Atget, Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, Jean Eugene Auguste Atget, Jean-Eugène Atget, Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget, Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License