In his series titled "Picturesque Paris," Atget looked at his Parisian contemporaries and their surroundings. Atget's take was not all-inclusive but decidedly class-conscious: he avoided making photographs of the high bourgeoisie and instead focused on working-class people involved in traditional Parisian street trades, including artisans, ragpickers, and prostitutes.
This image of bitumiers, or asphalt layers, is among the most successful from Atget's early and short-lived impressionist style. As a purveyor of artistic documents, Atget was usually concerned with making photographs that accentuated legible detail. But in this atmospheric photograph, by contrast, Atget appears to have been more interested suggesting an abstract ideal of elegant and noble labor. By shooting the workers from behind, with their tools indistinct and faces mere silhouettes, Atget emphasizes the men's teamwork and almost mythic gestures and forms.
Atget included this photograph and two others of bitumiers in an album documenting traditional Paris street trades, known as petits métiers, which he compiled in 1910. The petits métiers series was unusual for Atget: it is one of only three series in which he focused as much on people as on architecture or landscape; the other two, made later, focused on ragpickers (see Poterne des Peupliers) and prostitutes (see Maison à Versailles).
Atget's photographic project at times took on a pronounced sociopolitical cast. His later series on ragpickers, for instance, straightforwardly documented a segment of the population leading hardscrabble lives at the margins of society. A similar sensibility may have informed an album on modern Parisian interiors that Atget photographed in 1909–1910, in which this image featured.
The bound album of 60 photographs, which Atget sold to the Bibliothèque nationale, appeared on its face to be a continuation of Atget's series of 1905 documenting Old Paris interiors (see Ambassade d'Autriche). But whereas that series focused on grandiose architectural details, the album on modern interiors juxtaposed (on facing pages) the expansive and richly decorated apartments of the affluent with the smaller, crowded apartments of workers.
The captions in the album identify the apartment's inhabitant (by initial), his or her occupation, and the apartment's address, but Atget took liberties with the profiles of his supposedly random sample. This photograph, captioned in the album by Atget as the interior of a working-class man, was actually made in Atget's apartment on rue Campagne (as were at least five others identified as the apartment of an actor). The caption, while deceptive, underscores Atget's identification with the working class.
In documenting how Paris was transformed through modernization, Atget turned his attention beyond the city's threatened architecture to its marginalized populations. In 1913 he started working systematically in what was known as the zone, an area immediately outside the 19th-century fortifications that ringed Paris until after World War I.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the zone had become home to vast numbers of displaced and impoverished Parisians; a significant part of the zone's population was made up of chiffoniers, or ragpickers, the people who went through Parisians' garbage salvaging and selling what they could.
Ragpickers had often been romanticized as free spirits in art and popular culture. Atget's photographs are not picturesque, but neither did he intend them to spur social change. Instead, they are detailed, sympathetic records of a special class of workers and their environment.
In this image, Atget focused on a portion of a chiffonier shantytown in the Poterne des Peupliers (roughly translated, the back door to the street of poplar trees), an area of the zone in the southern part of the city. Visible on the hill are a dilapidated wooden shack and a small brick structure that is probably an outhouse.
This image of a brothel façade in the town of Versailles was one of Atget's first photographs of prostitutes and their places of work. Brothels were legal, but they were not allowed to be identified by signs. As a result, many, as here, advertised their function by grossly enlarging the size of their assigned street numbers.
André Dignimont (1891–1965), an illustrator and photograph collector, commissioned Atget in 1921 to photograph prostitutes and brothels for a book. It is possible that Atget made this photograph before the agreement with Dignimont, and that it helped inspire the collaboration.
Atget, who was fiercely protective of his photographic independence, rarely worked on commission. He and Dignimont apparently had a falling out soon after the project started, because Atget abandoned it after making only 12 images. Perhaps Dignimont took issue with Atget's treatment of prostitution not as something lurid or titillating but instead as a petit métier, a traditional Parisian street trade.
Atget made photographs of old Parisian storefronts at different points throughout his career, but only in 1925, near the end of his life, did he train his lens on a quintessentially modern feature of urban life: the department store. No one knows why the windows induced Atget to let down his antimodern guard, but the resulting photographs, admired by the surrealist photographer and painter Man Ray, helped ensure Atget's lasting reputation.
Atget's photograph suggests keen social observation. The absurd mannequins, dressed impeccably, strike active poses in a tiny, stagelike space. Perhaps Atget viewed them as debased modern cultural counterparts to the outdoor statuary with which he was so taken throughout his career. The layered reflections not only add to the confusion about what is real and what is fantasy, but also suggest a damning comparison between modern consumerism and past French artistic glories: the domed building reflected in the window is part of the Gobelins factories, which had produced the world's most sought-after tapestries since its establishment under Louis XIV in 1662.