Image: Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, 1927, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Maria Morris Hambourg Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, 1927, gelatin silver print, 13 5/16 x 10 5/16 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Maria Morris Hambourg

Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, Ltd., Inc.

If he were alive, the prickly French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) would likely bristle at his reputation as a founding father of modern photography. Atget was undoubtedly ambitious—he made about 10,000 negatives in his obsessive, 30-year drive to record Old Paris and its environs. But Atget's allegiance to outdated photographic technology, his focus on pre–French Revolutionary architecture and ornamentation, and his utilitarian approach to photography marked him as emphatically old school. A dedicated commercial photographer, Atget never considered the images he made to be art; they were, he insisted, simply "documents"—visual records that he peddled mostly to painters and libraries.

Yet in documenting France's culture and landscape, Atget explored and expanded photography's possibilities both formally and expressively. Combining careful analysis and poetic intuition, Atget produced images that are strikingly clear and detailed but also deeply personal and somehow ineffable.

Many of Atget's most arresting pictures are suffused with melancholy. He presents Paris not as a bustling modern metropolis but as a city abandoned. Eschewing the prominent 19th-century additions to the city's face—the grand boulevards, the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra—he trained his lens instead on its older, often decaying buildings and parks and, occasionally, its marginalized populations. These understated and elegant photographs make palpable the quietly pernicious effects of the passing of time and suggest the fragility of even the grandest human undertakings.

Atget's photographs are documents to be sure, but their lyricism, otherworldliness, and sense of historical contingency demonstrate that functional photography can indeed be an art form.