Today is the 162nd birthday of the French photographer Eugène Atget who took photographs of people and things at a time when most photography being taken was portraiture. His photos of paris at the turn of the century are hauntingly beautiful. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
The life and the intention of Eugene Atget are fundamentally unknown to us. A few documented facts and a handful of recollections and legends provide a scant outline of the man: He was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857, and worked as a sailor during his youth; from the sea he turned to the stage, with no more than minor success; at forty he quit acting, and after a tentative experiment with painting Atget became a photographer, and began his true life’s work.
Until his death thirty years later he worked quietly at his calling. To a casual observer he might have seemed a typical commercial photographer of the day. He was not progressive, but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death. He was little given to experiment in the conventional sense, and less to theorizing. He founded no movement and attracted no circle. He did however make photographs which for purity and intensity of vision have not been bettered.
Atget’s work is unique on two levels. He was the maker of a great visual catalogue of the fruits of French culture, as it survived in and near Paris in the first quarter of this century. He was in addition a photographer of such authority and originality that his work remains a bench mark against which much of the most sophisticated contemporary photography measures itself. Other photographers had been concerned with describing specific facts (documentation), or with exploiting their indivisual sensibilities (self-expression). Atget enconpassed and transcended both approaches when he set himself the task of understanding and interpreting in visual terms a complex, ancient, and living tradition.
The pictures that he made in the service of this concept are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true.