Unreal Nature

June 29, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:20 am

It is worth trying to imagine what kind of life he led, this Paris pedestrian, laden with cumbersome equipment that made his work as arduous as that of a street-porter. Imagine what it meant to have to lug a bellows camera, with glass plates in plate-holder, a focusing cloth, a lens case, a wooden tripod: twenty kilograms at the very least, well over forty pounds. Flexible negatives had come onto the market before the turn of the century; far lighter than glass, they made exterior shots much easier, but Atget never used them, remaining faithful to his old equipment and his old habits. He went everywhere by bus and Metro; a notebook of his, now in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, gives clients’ names and addresses marked with the name of the nearest subway station. Atget‘s technique is known to us. Virtually all his photographs are albumen prints. The paper was sold impregnated with whipped and salted egg white, and the photographer soaked it in a bath of silver nitrate. Sensitized and dried, the paper was laid in the printing frame with the glass negative and exposed to sunlight until an image appeared, then fixed and toned with a salt of gold. The resulting images were very “clean,” quite unlike the blur favored by the pictorialist photographers of the period. The prints were fairly stable in themselves, but the thinness of the paper and its tendency to curl induced Atget (along with many other photographers) to paste his photographs onto card: a disastrous practice, since the acid in the card discolored the prints, and the albumen, prevented from curling, developed a network of cracks. Subsequently, Atget used aristotypes, on citrate paper, which was sold ready-sensitized and was — in theory, at least — more stable. Unfortunately, however, these were poorly fixed and washed, and a number of images have been irreparably stained.

Atget used an 18 x 24 cm plate camera, with a short-focus lens, mostly with a rising front. [ … ] He positioned his camera low, no doubt so that he could sit comfortably on his bag of plate-holders. Atget liked to work in one particular kind of light, that of the early morning. It may be that this originally came about because his institutional clients wanted a documentary record uncluttered by people. He operated in a world without vehicles or pedestrians, and this imparts a strange quality to his photographs, especially when seen in any quantity. There is a weirdness in his empty streets, his impenetrable facades, his gaping dormers, his windows opening onto shadowy, inscrutable interiors; and it is easy to understand why they fascinated De Chirico, another resident of the Rue Campagne-Première, whose dummy-like figures owe a lot to Atget.

All of today’s quotes are from the book, Atget Paris, by Laure Beaumont-Maillet (1992).

Portrait of Atget by Berenice Abbott, 1927

… Why did the Surrealists adopt Atget? Man Ray always claimed that he had discovered him; and Robert Desnos confirms this. However, try though they might to take him over, Atget entreated them to do nothing of the sort. When Man Ray offered to publish some of his works (notably the Corsets of 1912) in the June 1926 number of La Révolution surréaliste, Atget gave this surprising response: “Do not mention my name. The pictures I take are simply documents.”

[ … ]

Atget worked without a break, day in, day out, patiently recording the face of a Paris that was constantly changing. He was not interested in Haussmann’s Paris — rich, grand, pretentious — but in a picturesque section of wall that was on the point of collapsing, or in any touching or unexpected detail. “Having seen the famous sights of a great city,” wrote Pierre Mac Orlan, “does not necessarily entitle one to hear its private song.” In Paris, perhaps it is Atget, more than anyone else, who allows us to hear that private song. The images that he gives us are precise and profoundly honest. Mute witnesses, his photographs look out at us with something like a reproach; for a topographical view in a photograph has a completely different flavor from the same view in a painting or a drawing: it has the bitterness that springs from direct proximity, and the emotion that is stirred by photography’s unequaled ability to resurrect. In a sense, Atget’s work has escaped from its creator; it is and will continue to be subject to an interpretative process that would have astonished him more than anybody. On every side, efforts are made to appropriate him, or at least to fashion his work into the expression of an ideology. Every commentator looks for the man behind the myth; but the man remains elusive, and we must reconcile ourselves to that. Even the self-evident can retain its mystery.

His technique belonged to the nineteenth century; his vision firmly belongs to the twentieth. His gaze was direct and frank; but he, more than anybody, was able to make the imaginary coexist with the real. And so he invented modern photography.

That last sentence is a bit of a stretch, though he was, indeed, influential.

For an interesting look at Atget’s work, side by side with photographs of the same locations taken by Christopher Rauschenberg, see Rephotographing Atget: photos and text by Christopher Rauschenberg. [Navigation buttons are at the bottom of the page; Atget’s images are on the left, Rauschenberg’s on the right.]

On this page, you can see a number of pictures of the inside of Atget’s ‘atelier.’ [ link ]




  1. CR> And so he invented modern
    CR> photography.

    JH> That last sentence is a bit
    JH> of a stretch…

    Interestingly, considering my opposition to “great man theories”, my immediate reflex response to your comment was “oh no it’s not!”

    Obviously some work to be done in my hypocrisy department :-)

    Atget was another in my childhood hero pantheon; he apparently remains so, retaining strength despite my adult exorcism efforts.

    Comment by Felix Grant — June 30, 2009 @ 2:20 am

  2. We have just uploaded a set of 97 photographs by Atget on our Flickr account!

    You can view them at http://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/sets/72157621011255003/


    George Eastman Hosue

    Comment by Ryan Donahue — July 8, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: