Atget found his calling—documenting Old Paris—in 1898. In the name of modernization, Paris had been undergoing a radical physical transformation since the mid-19th century. Napoleon III (1808–1873) dreamed of making Paris the most modern, hygienic, and opulent city in the world, and Baron Georges Haussmann (1809–1891) was selected to implement the emperor's vision. The immense change—including new boulevards with new buildings to line them, as well as new parks, squares, and bridges—took decades to carry out and required the demolition of neighborhoods and monuments deemed irreplaceable.
Public opposition to the destruction of Paris' architectural heritage grew throughout the 1890s, and in 1897 an official city body—La Commission municipale du vieux Paris—was established. Its board included several of Atget's clients and acquaintances. Atget did not work for the commission directly, but he quickly turned his attention to satisfying the new market created by the growing interest in Old Paris.
Atget grouped his photographs of Old Paris, which included architecture and architectural decoration, into a series titled "The Art of Old Paris." The series comprised more than 3,000 pictures, most produced between 1898 and 1915.
Atget often focused on fantastic architectural details from 17th- and 18th-century structures, amassing a catalogue of creatures—gorgons, gargoyles, dragons, and sea monsters—that add a surreal dimension to his documentation of Old Paris. For this work, for example, Atget photographed a mascaron, a decorative grotesque mask that was part of a fountain erected in 1715. The severe frontality and close cropping isolate the mascaron from its surroundings and emphasize its playfully grotesque details.
Atget often approached architectural detail in this formal manner, but here he had a particular rationale for highlighting the grotesque. In his "Art of Old Paris" album, he noted in the caption accompanying this photograph, "The mascaron, the only thing interesting in this little fountain, is a masterpiece of ornamental sculpture from the beginning of the 18th century."
Atget photographed this lion-shaped door knocker at the mint, a building that epitomized official Louis XVI style. Atget made several photos of the sober late 18th-century structure and its decorative elements as part of his project to document Old Paris, but he was apparently especially taken with this knocker; he included it—together with Fontaine, rue Garancière and Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande—in his first album, "Art in Old Paris," calling it "completely beautiful."
Atget may have been attracted aesthetically to the lion with two wriggling serpents in its mouth, but he also had a practical reason for photographing it in crisp detail: he sold many such photographs to metalworkers who used them to produce bronze replicas. Atget recorded that a copy of this photograph, for instance, was purchased by Maison Bricard, a Parisian firm specializing in decorative ironwork.
Atget loved doors and doorways for their architectural qualities and symbolic significance. At once entrances and barriers, they could also be, as here, grandiloquent expressions of privilege.
Atget's attraction to this particular doorway is not surprising. With its classicizing wood and stone reliefs executed in 1657–1660 by sculptor Thomas Regnaudin (1622–1706)—who also made many of the sculptures in the gardens of Versailles—this doorway is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the mansion-studded Marais section of Paris.
Atget may also have been interested in this spot because author Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais lived there when he penned his incendiary comedy The Marriage of Figaro in 1778. Atget, who had been a professional actor before turning to photography, maintained a lifelong interest in the theater, even lecturing about it at public universities from 1904 to 1913. Sympathetic politically to the plight of the common man, Atget likely would have been drawn to the iconic play's attacks on aristocratic privilege, which caused Louis XVI to temporarily ban its performance and which later led Napoleon to describe it as "the Revolution in action."
While doubtless admiring of the mansion's pedigree and its exquisite ancien régime architecture, Atget here is less concerned about suggesting its original, pristine splendor than in documenting its seemingly anachronistic presence in the modern world. The strong contrasts highlight the doorway's griminess. At right, Atget includes a small sign advertising a shop with a machine to make pleats or buttonholes. By shooting at an angle, rather than head-on, Atget undercuts the doorway's powerful symmetry and downplays the grandeur of the crowning stone relief, which is partly cropped. Finally, the open door pierces the intimidating entrance, drawing our eye to the usually inaccessible private space of the interior courtyard and suggesting the ancient structure's ongoing, if more prosaic, role in the fabric of the modern city.
Around 1904, as part of his series on the art of Old Paris, Atget began making photographs of the interiors of publicly accessible 17th- and 18th-century town houses and country mansions. Early on he sought out the famously elegant interior of the Hôtel Matignon (completed 1725), which is now the official residence of France's prime minister but at the time housed the Austro-Hungarian embassy.
Atget made images of three mirrored fireplaces in the house. Here, he captured not only the texture and sumptuous detail of the marble mantle but also, through the angled reflection, the expansiveness and opulent decoration of the entire room, including the crystal chandelier, the painted panel, and the intricate tendril patterning on the wall and ceiling. To include the particulars he sought, Atget apparently was willing to let his equipment, visible at left, impinge on the image. That he made such a compromise supports the photographer Brassaï's contention that "Atget considered himself not as an artistic photographer, but as a documenter."
This storied city mansion, better known as the Hôtel Rothelin-Charolais, dates from the first decade of the 18th century. Once the residence of royalty, it now houses France's ministry of immigration. (Curiously, it also served as the model for the residence of the Belgian ambassador in Washington, DC, which was built in 1932.)
Atget photographed many of the great pre-1789 mansions of Paris, but the absolute frontality and symmetry of this image is unusual in his work. Atget evidently could not capture both the façade and the foreground to his liking without also creating the dark bands at the top of the image (an effect known as vignetting). Such bands appear frequently in Atget's work but almost never obscure documentary details; in fact, as here, the bands focus attention upon them.
Distinctive wrought-iron signs, a longtime staple of picturesque Old Paris commercial life, had largely disappeared by the late 19th century. As with the street trades, the loss of such signs in the wake of the city's modernization triggered a wave of nostalgia and a frenzied drive to document their remaining vestiges. An extensive article on the signs by an expert on Old Paris appeared in 1902, around the time Atget made most of his sign photographs (1900–1902); a book on the signs was published in 1913, the year in which Atget sold to the Bibliothèque nationale an album in which he had bound many of his photographs of signs—including this one—together with those of old stores.
The signs that remained in greatest numbers belonged, like this, to wine merchants. The law required that such establishments be fenced with iron grills except for a single unbarred opening for clients. Many such signs survived because they were embedded in the iron grillwork above the doorway.
Atget was fascinated by windows and reflections for their pictorial effects, especially how they confuse distinctions between interior and exterior. The distorted reflection of a streetlight on the left pane lends an unreal fluidity to the otherwise stable and symmetrical composition. Below the light, meanwhile, one can glimpse bottles lining the bar counter inside and, at right, the ghostly image of a server.
In 1913, Atget made several photographs of the exterior of the Hôtel du Cardinal Dubois (also known as the Chancellerie d'Orléans). The mansion, demolished in 1923, stood near the Palais Royal and was regarded as one of the most accomplished architectural realizations of the early 18th century. In this work, Atget focused on a first-floor French door surmounted by an inset relief of a naiad—a mythological freshwater nymph.
This photograph performed double duty in documenting the art of Old Paris. The naiad relief was itself a nearly exact copy of a relief, now in the Musée du Louvre, which celebrated French Renaissance sculptor Jean Goujon had originally fashioned in 1549 to decorate the Fountain of the Innocents. Atget's photograph of the naiad relief from 150 years later illustrates classicism's enduring dominance in French decorative arts from the mid-16th to the early 18th century. At the same time, the evident grime on the relief—especially the water stains on the naiad's upper leg—and the shabby condition of the window and shutters suggest the irrecoverableness of this golden age.
Atget photographed the Cour de Rouen (also known as Cour de Rohan) at least six times between 1898 and 1923. The intimate, secluded, and picturesque spot comprising three irregularly shaped courtyards is tucked into a teeming area of Paris' left bank. It is also redolent of French history: the buildings surrounding the courtyards incorporate the remnants of the 14th-century palace of the archbishop of Rouen. Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), mistress of Henri II, was one of the Cour's many important denizens.
In making this photograph, Atget deviated from his customary practice by shooting from an elevated vantage point rather than ground level. Doing so enabled him to show the irregular shape of the site and the eccentric layering of its structures: the jumble of windows, the slanting roofs at different heights, and the personality-filled drainage pipes.
Atget's interest in Notre-Dame, one of Paris' foremost landmarks, deepened late in his career. He made photographs of the cathedral regularly in the last five years of his life, usually in early spring before the leaves came out.
This image, taken from the Quai de Montebello, on the left bank of the Seine, exemplifies Atget's growing attention later in life to the metaphorical possibilities of photography. By linking the bare branches of the tree to the cathedral's spires and flying buttresses, Atget appears to be meditating upon the association between the natural and the man-made in an urban setting. Atget similarly situated trees in two other photographs made late in his career: Pont Marie, 1926, and Saint-Cloud, 1926.
Atget would often revisit the same street, building, or even tree that he had photographed several years before, producing a record of changes over time that might otherwise have been overlooked or forgotten. Atget first photographed the old, intimate streets surrounding the Impasse Chartière, an alleyway in the Latin Quarter, in 1902. He returned to photograph the neighborhood in 1915, perhaps because he had heard that several of its aged houses were slated to be destroyed. But the demolition was delayed with the advent of World War I, and the site had not been fully cleared even by 1925.
In this photograph made in 1923, Atget captured the desolation of the partly shattered site. Atget often photographed ruins in Paris, charting the city's changing face as its old buildings were torn down to make room for new edifices or infrastructure (including the Paris Métro). But as seen in this forlorn image, Atget viewed ruins primarily as signs of loss rather than harbingers of progress.
The darkened curves at the top of the image are known as vignetting. Although it is a generally undesirable effect, Atget here effectively uses vignetting to focus attention on the gutted buildings and highlight the exaggerated, stagelike perspective of the upward sloping ground.
These three photographs of Pont Marie, taken over a period of more than 20 years, highlight how Atget returned again and again to the same motif. It is not hard to imagine what attracted Atget to Pont Marie. Set in the heart of Old Paris, where it connects the residential Île Saint-Louis to the right bank of the Seine, the architectonic 17th-century bridge—with its alternating sturdy piers and wide arches—is simultaneously muscular and graceful.
The three photographs here were made from different points, and each has a different sensibility. The earliest looks at the bridge not in isolation but rather in relation to the Seine's role in the life of the city. One end of a large hauling boat and three smaller rowboats dominate the left foreground, while the water-level marker on the nearest pier suggests how the river and city are intertwined (a major flood in 1910 would cause catastrophic damage). The leafless trees on the far bank, the glasslike water, and the absence of people—echoed by the empty niches above the piers and the voids under the archlike spans—lend this essentially descriptive photograph an air of fragile, almost unreal, stillness.
In the second photograph, from 1912, Atget has framed a smaller portion of the bridge, putting greater emphasis on its individuated architectural elements. No vessels are visible in the water, and the buildings on the Île Saint-Louis at the far end of the span are less salient than those in the earlier photograph. The sober gray tones of this matte albumen print make the bridge look eternally old, and its evident stasis is only heightened by the contrasting detail of a flag (visible at the top of a building in the background at left) made blurry by its fluttering during the long photographic exposure.
In the final photograph, from 1926, a year before his death, Atget used the bridge to explore photography's metaphorical potential. As he would elsewhere late in his life—see Notre-Dame and Saint-Cloud—Atget has composed the photograph with trees dominating the foreground, suggesting a relationship between the natural and the man-made. The sycamores' thick trunks, for instance, appear to be as substantial as the pier with which they are juxtaposed. By shooting into the light from a higher vantage point on the quay, Atget has made the bridge appear more approachable. The tree trunks and abundant leaves become silhouettes framed against the sky, and the light that pierces the arches contrasts with the dark voids seen in the other two photographs.