A Word with Eugène Atget

Cover of the publication Atget. John Szarkowski. 2000. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In concert with the current photography exhibition Eugène Atget: “Documents pour artistes”, MoMA has republished Atget, a richly illustrated title first published by the Museum in 2000. A series of brief texts by author John Szarkowski accompanies each of the 100 photographs in the book, ranging from musings on the art and craft of photography, to explications of French culture and history, to insight into the unique character of Atget’s legacy. Szarkowski, who was Director of the Department of Photography at The Museum Modern Art from 1962 until 1991, was also an accomplished photographer.

Reading the book for the first time, I was struck by the consonance between Atget’s images and Szarkowski’s writing. Often words can simplify an artwork (not always a bad thing) but here, Szarkowski’s words actually elevate the experience. His descriptions are both musical and discerning, echoing the depth and poeticism of Atget’s photographic eye, and while the observations are grounded in his expertise, Szarkowski’s voice throughout the book is often personal and philosophical.

Below, he responds to one of Atget’s photos of apple trees:

“Atget made many such beautiful photographs of apple trees, which he must have loved, and it was not until he was sixty-five that it came to him that apples are not fastened to an apple tree like Christmas ornaments on a dead spruce, or like campaign pins on a winter suit, but rather like trout on a fragile leader. They hang to the tree because they are given almost complete freedom by the slender, sinewy branches from which they depend.”

Eugène Atget. Pommier (detail). 1922–23. Albumen silver print, 8 9/16 x 6 7/8

In response to the same photo, Szarkowski invokes a contemporary of Atget, working across the ocean:

“Actually, Alfred Stieglitz made a similar picture, looking outward from the tree and framing the apples in the gable of his house at Lake George. Stieglitz’s picture is dated 1922, and Atget’s was made in that year or the next. They might have been made on the same day.”

Here is the Stieglitz image to which Szarkowski refers:

Alfred Stieglitz. Apples and Gable, Lake George. 1922. Gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 x 3 5/8" (11.5 x 9.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous gift. © 2012 Estate of Alfred Stieglitz / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Through an expert selection of photographs and perceptive commentary, Szarkowski’s book cultivates Atget’s importance as a singular and influential figure in the history of art and photography.

Eugène Atget: “Documents pour Artistes” is on view through April 9 in the Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor.