In Celebration: Eugene Atget

Posted In: News on 2/14/2020

Eugene Atget, whose birthday we celebrate, is one of the most important photographers in the entire history of photography. His work stands as a great transition between seeing photography as a scientific record, and seeing it as medium of self expression…art-ready, as it were. Atget made such artists as Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Lee Friedlander, and many others, possible. Until Atget, you had a choice… you could either “describe”, or “express”, and most 19th and early 20th century critics, wanted to relegate photography to the former…it’s what it did best, after all. But Atget’s pictures are sneaky. At first they seem like topographic records of the lay of the land, but after viewing a group of them, they leave a taste in your mouth that is highly reminiscent of art. Yum!

Case in point: I was in Paris visiting the vaunted precincts of the Bibliotheque National, on the rue Richelieu. It was 1971, my first visit. I was a graduate student, and had been drawn to the work of Atget, in Rochester, NY where I was studying at the Visual Studies Workshop, and at the George Eastman House, but here in Paris the BN was the major repository of his work.  So naturally I wanted to see as many as I could.  When I asked the print room’s attendant to see Atget’s work. He said it would be a little complicated, as the work was filed not by Atget’s name, because the work was technically ( as far as the BN was concerned ) not art but rather public works records.  As such, they were filed by the arrondissemnts in which they were taken…these are the neighborhoods of Paris which were arranged numerically radiating outwards from the center, similar to zip codes in the US. So, since I was staying in the 6th Arrondissement, that’s where I started. The attendant went away to fetch the work.  He soon returned with a rather large file box full of prints.  I started to sort through them: Not an Atget, not an Atget, Atget, Atget, not an Atget, and so on until I had sorted through the entire box of approximately 400 prints! But I brought myself up short, and asked myself “hang on…what have I just done? I turned the piles of pictures over, and started to go through the piles.  There were 150 or so prints I thought were Atgets, and the remaining 250 I thought were not.  Atget used a black ink stamp which said: “E. Atget”.

Of my Atget pile of 150, 142 had black E.Atget stamps on the back, so I had got 8 wrong…ONLY 8 wrong. Among my “non-Atgets”, only 4 had  E. Atget ink stamps.  Not a bad success rate for a mere first year grad student!

So, how was I able to pull this off? Obviously, Atget, as an artist and not just an anonymous recorder of details, possessed a “vision” which was visible and identifiable in most every work he made. And likewise the absence of this vision was also noticeable. This is the way Art works…it almost doesn’t need to be signed…the “identification” is baked in.  As they used to say in the advertising world: “The quality went in before the name went on”. And so humble Atget proved that with photographs, you could have your cake and eat it too.

The choice of description or expression was no longer valid. Now, you could express simply by describing. Of course you had to describe very well!…Hello Edward Weston, and happy birthday Eugene Atget, the father of modern photography.

Alan Klotz