Eugene Atget

Atget cover

I’ve become increasingly interested in photography over the past year or so, to the point now where I look forward to any diversion from my routine as an opportunity to take pictures. It’s a return to the ten years or so I spent practising fine art, but pretty much ceased when my children were born. As part of this growing enthusiasm, I began to look at the stock of photography books at the college where I work. Despite gaining what I thought was a fair knowledge of 20th century art, I’d never really taken a serious look at photographers apart from the likes of the Starn Twins and the Surrealist photographers exhibited as part of the L’Amour Fou exhibition in the ’90s. On my first visit to the college library, I discovered Eugene Atget. His work takes my breath away.

I’ve looked at a fair selection of other work (probably in actual fact a tiny drop in a very broad ocean), but I keep returning to Atget. He died 80 years ago and remains something of an enigma, relatively little is known about his opinions. He made no claim to art, but conducted his work as a documenter of scenes and objects (door knockers, interiors and so forth) for the use of artists and, later, institutions interested in preserving the ‘ancien Paris’ rapidly disappearing during Atget’s lifetime under Hausmann’s reforms. The brilliance of Atget’s compositions, their sense of engagement with and transcendence of both the everyday and the ordered beauty of the great parks of the Sun King, Louis XIV is both bewitching and haunting. I would have to jump medium and refer to Scott Walker’s late work (the beauty and otherness, if not the dread, of Climate of Hunter and Tilt) to find some kind of reference point.

Although I now also own Atget The Pioneer and the NY MOMA monograph Atget, the key collection of Atget’s images is the four volume The Work of Atget by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris. Inevitably, it’s long out of print and individual volumes appear to go for a minimum of £90. I was lucky to find a copy of volume III, The Ancien Regime (pictured above) for a mere £20 + p&p. To my delight, it turned out to be an ex-library copy:

Atget inside cover

It’s in remarkably good condition, but I’m writing this post to express my delight at one particular detail. As I wrote above, Atget referred to his photographs as documents for artists to enable them to paint scenes without having to travel, risk poor light or brave adverse weather conditions. Atget’s work is clearly still of use: on page 107 of my edition can be spied dabs of green, crimson and yellow paint:

page 107

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