At first glance, Eugène Atget’s work may seem enigmatic and difficult to place but, as is often the case with all classics, history slowly reveals a clearer image to us that has inspired and continues to inspire generations of artists. His work has been praised as a milestone in the evolution of the photographic culture. An indispensable milestone for understanding the modern aesthetic that his work introduces in a more or less subtle manner.
In fact, despite working almost completely anonymously, when he died various artistic movements argued over how to categorize his images: For some, his work fitted perfectly into the surrealist vision: the detailed description of ordinary objects able to evoke unconventional symbolism, the latent enigma of his scenes, and the often heavy, metaphysical atmosphere of his landscapes. For others he was simply an honest photographer who captured the streets, gardens and people of the less well-known side of the metropolis with his camera, and who decided to do so for no other reason than to build up a systematic archive of images of a city in transformation. Others underline the inherent sensitivity of his gaze with all its poetry and its mystery.
The way in which Atget faced the landscapes he depicted, in which he found a never-ending plasticity, enabled him to take the same motifs over and over again, although they always appear brand new. The austerity and originality of his framing, as well as his ability to turn a specific topic, or a specific detail into an important document of French culture, set an example for later generations. We find echoes of the collective depiction of Atget’s Paris in the works of August Sander through his photographs of German society, with Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander in their depiction of American society, or Paul Strand with each one of the towns he photographs, and even in contemporary photographers such as Fazal Sheikh who looked up to him as one of his artistic role models. With Atget at the helm, all of these photographers have taught us that the most insignificant details can become interesting and beautiful when photographed.
Atget was born in Libourne in 1857 and died in Paris in 1927. Having never received formal training in photography, Atget joined this thriving profession in the 19th century after an unsuccessful stint as a copywriter and cartoonist for a satirical magazine and as an actor in second-rate companies.” He began taking photographs in 1888, originally in order to earn a living selling visual documents of Parisian streets to artists; later his clientele began to grow and artists, craftsmen and history fans would regularly purchase his works, as well as important institutions interested in the history of Paris, such as the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Atget stated this his photographs were «documents for artists» and never expected them to be considered as pieces of art in and of themselves. His photography career was brought to a halt by the First World war, although once the war ended he continued working until shortly before his death. From that moment on, and partly thanks to the American photographer Berenice Abbott who acquired much of his work (today thousands of these photographs are housed in the MoMa in New York) and publicized his photographs as pieces of art, he became widely recognized as a master photographer.