In 1878, after spending some time in the navy, Eugène Atget (Libourne, 1857 – Paris, 1927) moved to Paris where he enrolled at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in order to study acting. At the age of 30 he became interested in photography and began photographing landscapes and architecture that served as source material for painters. He would call these images “documents for artists”.
In the late 1890s Atget began to work on his renowned photographic archive of Paris. He started photographing the areas of the city that had not been transformed by the violent modernization project that Baron Haussmann had been carrying out since mid-century. Over the course of 30 years he created a repository of thousands of images portraying “old Paris” that included architecture, unpopulated streets, artisans, and businesses. However, the photographer’s prodigious and modern gaze, at odds with pictorialism, also focused on details others did not bother to note, such as storefronts, ornaments, mannequins, and billboards which caught the attention of those in the Surrealist circle.
Atget’s work gained wider recognition thanks to photographer Berenice Abbott who, along with art dealer Julien Levy, took charge of the photographer’s archive after his death. Later, in 1968, MoMA in New York acquired a large portion of the archive and organized several exhibitions. Atget’s work, crucial in the history of photography, has influenced the great photographers of the 20th century including Man Ray, Walker Evans, and Lee Friedlander.