Atget, Jean Eugène Auguste
Eugène Atget was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux. Orphaned at an early age, he was placed in the guardianship of an uncle. He left school sometime in his teens and went to sea, probably working as a cabin boy. From the sea he turned to the stage, and trained as an actor at the National Conservatory in Paris. Although he never finished his course of study, he joined a repertory group, and over the next few years, he made his living by acting in the provinces, usually in minor roles. In the late 1880s he abandoned the stage, and after a brief experiment with painting, took up photography. Atget specialized in subjects for painters, printmakers, and sculptors, and over time he settled on what was to be his major project: documenting the sites of Old Paris that were threatened by demolition.
Atget's equipment was simple. Because clear, sharp details were necessary to his work, Atget used a large view camera that held 7 x 9 inch glass negatives, standard when he began to photograph but antiquated by the end of his career, when smaller and more versatile cameras were available. He developed the negatives in his workroom and contact-printed them in sunlight on the roof of his apartment building. He usually printed on albumen papers, even well after most photographers had abandoned the process in favor of platinum and silver papers.
After 1901 Atget included the surrounding area of Paris in his collection, first the suburbs in the south, then those in the north. He often retuned to a specific site several times over the course of many years to document the changes that had taken place.
Before World War I, Atget's photographs were bought by artists such as André Derain, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse; after the war, the Americans Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, and Julien Levy all admired his work. Abbott was Man Ray's assistant when she met Atget in 1925; Levy met Atget through Man Ray in 1927. At the time, Levy purchased as many prints as Atget would allow him to buy (Atget would only part with 10 a day); Levy also searched out more prints at antiquarian booksellers. He confessed, "There is nothing I could ask for better than to roll myself between sheets of Atgets, each new one I find (and there are thousands) is a revelation."
Shortly before his death, Atget's work came to the attention of the Surrealists, who appreciated his ability to evoke meaning from the commonplace. After his death, through Abbott's tireless efforts, his prints came to the attention of those who supported photography as a fine art, and they were appreciated for their beauty and clarity. Atget had "no intellectual ax to grind," Ansel Adams wrote. His prints are "direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art."
MacOrlan, Pierre. Eugène Atget. Paris, 1930.
Abbott, Berenice. The World of Atget. New York, 1964.
Szarkowski, John and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget. Exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art. New York, 1981-1985.