Eugène Atget: Black Smoke and White Shadows

From left: Eugène Atget. Marchand de paniers en fil de fer. 1899–1900. Albumen silver print, printed 1978 by Chicago Albumen Works. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden; Eugène Atget. Marchand de paniers en fil de fer. 1899–1900. Gelatin dry plate negative. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden

Berenice Abbott. Eugène Atget. 1927. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Maria Morris Hambourg

For the first time in more than 25 years, Museum visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy a generous selection of work by the extraordinarily prolific and inventive photographer Eugène Atget (French, 1857–1927). Eugène Atget: “Documents pour artistes” presents over 100 photographs that span Atget’s career, and one object that has never before been displayed: an 18 x 24 cm (approx. 7 x 9 1/2″) glass-plate negative, for the first time allowing the public to appreciate the physical characteristics of the matrix for virtually every photograph in Atget’s oeuvre. These negatives were placed into a large-view camera on a tripod, and each print was made by exposing light-sensitive paper to the sun in direct contact with one of these glass plates. In the negative, the areas exposed to the most light become darkest, but these tones are reversed in the printing process when the dense areas of the negative inhibit light from passing through to the print.

Atget exposed at least 8,500 negatives throughout the course of his career, and the Museum owns over a thousand negatives as well as prints from nearly 5,000 of these. The vast majority came to the Museum in 1968 as the Abbott-Levy Collection, named after the photographer Berenice Abbott and the art dealer Julien Levy. In the mid-1920s, while working in Paris as Man Ray’s studio assistant, Abbott made Atget’s acquaintance, and at their final visit, just months before his death, she made one of the few known portraits of him. Atget’s studio was just down the street from Man Ray’s studio in Montparnasse; the words that appeared on the sign outside Atget’s studio give this exhibition its title.

Eugène Atget. Luxembourg. 1923–26. Albumen silver print. Printed 1981 by Chicago Albumen Works. Purchase

The Museum had collected photographs since the early 1930s, but the Abbott-Levy Collection represented the first time MoMA acquired the unique negatives from which the photographs were printed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the help of a then-newly founded operation, Chicago Albumen Works, the Museum produced modern albumen silver prints of over 100 remarkable images for which there was no satisfactory representation by Atget’s hand. Several of these are on view in the current exhibition, identified on their labels and by a tiny circular blind stamp in the lower-right corner of each print.

Conservator Lee Ann Daffner conducting a series of tests to evaluate the effectiveness of different layers of light filtering film

To display one of Atget’s original glass-plate negatives required the cooperation of many individuals around the Museum, and I include these snapshots to give a sense of the complexity of the process. Lee Ann Daffner conducted a series of tests in the Conservation Lab to evaluate the effectiveness of different layers of light filtering film.

From left: Peter Perez secures the glass plate within frame; Jerry Neuner and Harvey Tulcensky in front of light sheet in gallery

Peter Perez developed an elegant way to secure the glass plate within the frame while allowing the edges to remain visible, and Director of Exhibition Design Jerry Neuner oversaw every aspect of the exhibition design. Et voilà, the framed negative on display!

Installation view of the framed negative

Eugène Atget: “Documents pour artistes” is on view in the Museum’s third-floor photography galleries through April 9. Atget, the 2000 landmark publication by John Szarkowski, has been reprinted and will be available in the MoMA Stores, including, in late February.