Biographical information about Eugène Atget is scarce. He was born in 1857 to working-class parents in Libourne, not far from Bordeaux. Orphaned at the age of five, Atget was raised by his grandparents. He apparently spent some time at sea in the early 1870s, perhaps as a cabin boy. Determined to be an actor, he gained entrance to the Conservatoire d'art dramatique in Paris in 1879, but his military service obligation prevented him from completing his studies. After briefly directing a humoristic weekly magazine (to which he also contributed drawings), Atget embarked on what would prove a short-lived and unremarkable career as an itinerant actor. Atget gave up acting for good in 1887, but his passion for the theater endured, and from 1904 to 1913 he lectured on the theater at popular universities in and around Paris.
In searching for a new path, Atget considered both painting and photography. While he soon realized that he lacked the talent to be an accomplished artist, he remained an amateur painter throughout his life. Atget took up photography around 1888. Probably self-trained, he first worked in the Somme region in northern France, and then, in 1890, settled in Paris as a commercial photographer. He put a sign on his door that read "Documents for Artists." His business card enumerated his specialties: "landscapes, animals, flowers, monuments, documents, foreground studies for artists, reproductions of paintings." His clients included painters, illustrators, engravers, sculptors, and set designers.
In 1898, Atget began to specialize in documents of Old Paris—a project that he would pursue tirelessly for 30 years. Atget's change in focus coincided with a campaign launched by antiquarians to protect and document prerevolutionary architecture threatened by the city's massive modernization program, which included, among other projects, the construction of the Paris Métro. Enamored of the city's history, Atget, working alone, built up a vast photographic archive of Paris' old houses, shops, churches, and streets, as well as its architectural ornamentation, including doors, stairways, door knockers, and mantelpieces. While he continued to sell prints to artists, Atget now found a larger market among publishers, amateur scholars of Old Paris, libraries, and archives.
Atget's output declined after 1910 and virtually ceased during the First World War (1914–1918). In 1920, Atget offered to sell a substantial portion of his glass-plate negatives to the government (whereas previously he had sold only prints, not his negatives). In a letter to the minister of fine arts, he wrote, "For more than 20 years I have been working alone and of my own initiative in all the old streets of Old Paris to make a collection of 18 x 24 [centimeter] photographic negatives: artistic documents of beautiful urban architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries. . . . Today this enormous artistic and documentary collection is finished; I can say I possess all of Old Paris." The government purchased more than 2,600 of Atget's plates for 10,000 francs.
The sale of the plates may have triggered the renewed energy and creativity that distinguished Atget's remarkable late work. In the last years of his life, he revisited many places where he had made earlier photographs, and he also tackled new locales, such as the Parc de Sceaux just south of Paris. He imbued these elegiac late images with a personal expression and poetic sensibility that transcended their nominal subject matter. In the summer of 1926, Atget's companion of 30 years, the former actress Valentine Campagnon, died. Though disconsolate, Atget worked for one more year before he, too, passed away.
The few firsthand accounts of Atget's life agree that he was extremely strong willed and consumed with his photographic mission. Determinedly middle-class, Atget was exceedingly frugal and unconcerned with material goods. He wore old clothes, reused paper until there was no room left to write upon it, and lunched on bread and milk (because of digestive problems but also, he said, because anything more was "immoderate luxury"). Atget was opinionated, combative in defending his views, and skeptical of anything new. Fiercely independent, he refused to join groups of any kind and generally avoided working on commission.
Atget was not particularly well known in his lifetime, but in the 1920s the aging photographer came to the attention of modern art's avant-garde. Man Ray, an expatriate American photographer and painter who was associated with the Dada and surrealist movements, met Atget between 1921 and 1924, in all likelihood because Man Ray's studio was a few steps down the street from Atget's apartment. Atget's images, which simultaneously appear real and dreamlike, appealed to Man Ray's surrealist sympathies, especially his interest in the outmoded; he bought about 50 photographs and in 1926 had four of them reproduced in a surrealist journal, La Révolution Surréaliste.
Man Ray encouraged others from his artistic circle to visit Atget. Julien Levy, an American filmmaker, bought as many Atget prints as Atget would permit, eventually exhibiting them at a gallery he would open in New York. American photographer Berenice Abbott, then Man Ray's assistant, visited Atget four or five times, buying prints and persuading him to sit for a photographic portrait in 1927. When Atget died, his executor and close friend, André Calmettes, ensured the photographer's legacy by dividing the negatives and prints between the French government's Commission des monuments historiques and Berenice Abbott; as Abbott herself became a towering figure of 20th-century photography, she continued to work throughout her career to promote Atget, even making prints from his negatives.
Atget's works had never been exhibited during his life, but they were included in two shows within a year of his death. Several articles on Atget—by surrealists, art critics, and Berenice Abbott—appeared in 1928 and 1929; the first book on the photographer, by Pierre MacOrlan, in 1930; and Abbott's monograph on Atget in 1931. In the span of a few years Atget's reputation as a foundational figure of modern photography had been cemented. Several leading 20th-century photographers, including Abbott, Walker Evans, and Bill Brandt, have acknowledged their debt to Atget.