For more than three decades, Atget photographed Paris—its ancient streets and monuments and finely wrought details, its corners and hovels and modern commerce, and its outlying parks. He was not an artist in the conventional sense but a specialized craftsman who supplied pictorial records of French culture to artists, antiquarians, and librarians. That, at least, is how he earned his living, advertising his wares as “documents for artists.” Shortly before his death, however, other photographers began to recognize that Atget’s work is art in everything but name: full of wit, invention, beauty, wisdom, and the disciplined cultivation of original perceptions.
This photograph of a corsetry storefront is characteristic of Atget’s ability to imbue Paris with an uncanny atmosphere. When Atget took the picture, corsetry was on its way out thanks to changing attitudes toward women’s place in society, which demanded greater mobility both physically and socially. Here the merchant’s wares appear as inanimate surrogates for female bodies; stacked in the windows, they seem to beckon to the passerby. Atget positioned his camera so that the mannequin suspended in front of the boutique is isolated against the dark doorway, adding drama to the spinning petticoats below. Their motion outpaces the camera’s ability to record them, blurring the picture and confounding Atget’s attempt to fix the appearance of the modernizing city.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)