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The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.


Rise of the Modern City

Discover the ways in which artists and architects engaged with the landscape of modern cities.


22 rue Cuincampoix, cour

Eugène Atget
(French, 1857–1927)

1912. Albumen silver print, 8 11/16 x 7 3/16" (22 x 18.2 cm)

Using a view camera set upon a tripod and glass plate negatives, Eugène Atget made more than 8,500 photographs of Paris and its environs over a career lasting more than three decades. Wandering through his native city, he captured building facades, streetscapes, architectural details, churches, shops, parks, and the occasional monument. At the time, Paris was undergoing sweeping renovations, meant to modernize the medieval city. Atget sought out the places still relatively untouched by these modernizing forces. His photographs serve, in part, as a record of old Paris.

Atget’s style of photography differed from the prevailing taste at the time. His photographs were generally in sharp focus, unlike those of his Pictorialist contemporaries. Though his modest purpose when making photographs was to create documents for other artists and craftsmen to use for their art—the sign outside of his studio read, “Documents pour artistes” (“Documents for artists”)—the trove of photographs he left behind testify to his own artistic talent.

The science, art, or profession of designing and constructing buildings, bridges, and other large structures.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

An international style of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by the creation of artistic tableaus and photographs composed of multiple prints or manipulated negatives, in an effort to advocate for photography as an artistic medium on par with painting.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

Any public-facing side of a building, often featuring decorative finishes.

An international, middle-class artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that emphasized the unity of the arts and sought to reflect the intensive psychic and sensory stimuli of the modern city. Although it influenced painting and sculpture, the movement’s chief manifestations were in design, performance art, and architecture. Variants in cities throughout Europe and the US accrued labels such as Arte Nova, Glasgow Style, Stile Liberty, and Arte Modernista. The version commonly referred to as Art Nouveau flourished in France and Belgium and was characterized by sinuous, asymmetrical lines based on organic forms. Its more rectilinear counterpart, called Jugendstil or Secession style, flourished concurrently in Germany and Central Europe.

Eugène Atget’s Legacy
After his death in 1927, a number of artists and journalists commented on the decidedly artistic and modern way in which Eugène Atget had photographed Paris. An article that ran in New York newspapers referred to him as “the first photographer to formulate the theory that the camera was an artistic instrument rather than a mere machine.”

Questions & Activities

  1. Keep Looking

    Explore a wide array of Eugène Atget’s photographs on his artist page on moma.org.

    Can you find examples of Art Nouveau design or architecture in his work?

  2. Debate Topic

    Little is known about Eugène Atget, and there is still debate about the intention behind his photographs. Some people consider Atget a documentary photographer, who took pictures that were only later considered modern and interesting. Other people think that he was an artist who had discovered how to use the camera in an inventive, imaginative way.

    Which of the following statements do you most agree with?

    Statement 1: Atget was a documentary photographer who was not interested in creating photographs that would be considered works of art.

    Statement 2: Atget was an artist who used photography to respond to modernism.

    Write a one-page defense of your position.