Skip to main content

The City as Archive and as Playground: Atget's Paris, and Lessons for New York

The work of French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) is featured in two current exhibitions at the International Center of Photography - the traveling Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, and well as the smaller in-house exhibition, Atget, Archivist of Paris. Considered a proto-Surrealist for his tendency to photograph oddities or unusual fragments on deserted streets, the streetwise Atget is often linked to the flâneur tradition. Though not one of the top-hat bourgeois gentleman strollers of the 1880s, his keen eye for the everyday street life of Paris, especially the endangered built environment, makes Atget one of the city's most influential documentarians.

In the late 1890s Atget, a former actor and painter, started documenting the old parks, houses, churches, and narrow streets that were vanishing. Beginning in 1852, planner Baron Haussmann's order to clean up the streets had resulted in the reconfiguration of Paris. Winding cobblestone streets, vestiges of the medieval city and friendly to revolutionaries, gave way to the tree-lined orderly avenues and boulevards, better for social control. Atget took upon himself the project of documenting the remaining vestiges of the street life with his heavy camera.

Though he considered himself an illustrator in his own time, referring to his photographs as documents, Atget nevertheless created images that look like visual poems from a strange world. Because he often took his large format camera to the streets early in the morning, his scenes are eerily devoid of people, giving them the sense that Walter Benjamin noted was like a scene of a crime. Many of the thirty one photographs on display in the Atget exhibit at the ICP, however, are less forensic than a catalog of architectural details - door knobs, relief sculptures, curving staircase rails, and so forth. The most haunting images, such as a 1924 photograph of the Rue du Figuier that's part of the Twilight exhibit, are those of narrow cobblestone streets surrounded by apartment buildings. Many of the windows are shuttered. No one is in the street, and the path ahead takes a curve and disappears. The aging apartment buildings threaten to careen and collapse into the street below. While these types of streetscapes are routinely depicted in sentimental paintings, an Atget image conveys much more mystery and lasting interest.

With Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, guest curator Terry Lichtenstein assembles some of the most famous of the modernist photos of Paris - a Man Ray portrait of Nancy Cunard, Brassaï's Madame Bijou in the Bar de la Lune, Paris, André Kertész's Under the Eiffel Tower, among others, but plenty of other materials, including magazines and films, to make it interesting. Though a screening of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) is hardly unusual, other works are much harder to see. Jean Painlevé’s film of sea horses, L'Hippocampe (1934) is a surrealist marvel. Also, while Jean Renoir and Jean Tedesco’s 1928 short La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes (The Little Match Girl) is not an especially great film, its modernist camera experiments in focus and speed help reinforce the overall themes of the exhibition. The display of magazines and books from the period show how the ideas of the Parisian avant-garde made their way into popular culture. The funniest objects are the popular postcards of a surrealist Paris - the city imagined seaside, complete with waves lapping at the steps of the Eiffel Tower, or overrun with elephants and other wild animals.

The approaches to photographing modern Paris of the 1920s and 1930s involved less documentation than subversion of conventional portrayals, playing up new angles to the old. The exhibition covers the experimental points of view associated with modernism - the closeup (callas lilies required), the view from above, the unexpected portrayal of the monumental city, as exemplified with this 1932 Clock of the Académie Française by Kertész, and distortion. The curator makes a claim that the modern artist was ambivalent toward the changing city. While the new Paris provided pleasure, the Surrealists, especially his champion Man Ray, shared Atget's loss of the old city.

After his death, the spirit and manner of Atget's project made its way to New York. Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Man Ray’s American assistant, not only preserved and publicized Atget's work but also launched her own well-known documentary project for the rapidly modernizing New York. The Federal Art Project of the 1930s provided the needed support for her work. In turn, photographer Douglas Levere took up Abbott's mission with his New York Changing. For the rest of us who walk around the old sections of the city, watching the destruction of our once-familiar restaurants, buildings, and blocks, with sadness or with rage, we should not forget our cameras.

Both exhibitions at the ICP (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street) will be on view to May 9, 2010. See their website for visitor information.

In addition, Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, his first in the United States, on the museum's first floor. Also see Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place, a look at a Montreal photographer. Both present issues of the gendered gaze as well as raise questions about privacy and identity.

Images: Eugène Atget
Rue de la Montagne Sainte Genevive, 1922 (Printed 1922-1927)
International Center of Photography

André Kertész, Clock of the Académie Française, Paris, 1932
© Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles





Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Update: As of March 12, 2020, many New York arts institutions have temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Please see this post for announcements of reopenings.
On August 14, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that low-risk cultural activities, museums, aquariums, and other low risk cultural arts can reopen in New York City on August 24. 

Come back to this page for any updates about reopenings.
(Currently CLOSED) Several museums in New York City are open on Mondays, including MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney.
This list has been expanded to include free or pay-what-you-wish hours.


American Museum of Natural History Central Park West and 79th Street
See the post, Big Things to See at the American Museum of Natural History.
Cooper Hewitt
2 East 91st St.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Ave

Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Ave

Metropolitan Museum of Art 100 Fifth Avenue
See the post 25 Things To Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of …

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

Starstruck at MoMA

(Update July 31, 2020. Please note: After reopening in 2019, MoMA is currently closed as a result of the pandemic. MoMA has not announced its reopening.) 
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan is undergoing a significant renovation and expansion that will increase gallery space by thirty percent upon completion in 2019. In the midst of renovation and following a long hot summer, the museum may currently look a little rough around the edges and even disorienting for longtime patrons. For starters, you’ll need to enter the museum on W. 54th Street instead of W. 53rd Street while the work is taking place, and the museum store is now currently on the second floor next to the coffee bar which has also moved.


This state of affairs didn’t stop visitors on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend from making a pilgrimage to the museum to gaze at treasures of modern art. In an age of quickly disposable digital imagery, the original and cherished works still exude their aura. Ironically,…

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk.



One such essay, "Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer, Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the advantag…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

As the pandemic crisis improves in New York State, several NYC attractions are scheduling their re-openings. What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED August 14, 2020. With the state of New York currently ahead of the class in the pandemic outbreak across the US, many favorite local destinations have started to reopen. The rollout is designed to be gradual, with geographic regions advancing according to a fixed set of metrics. 
New York City, the hardest hit area in the first months of the crisis, entered Phase 4 on Monday, July 20. The local exception: indoors of malls, restaurants, and cultural institutions.
On August 14, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that low-risk cultural activities, museums, aquariums, and other low risk cultural arts can reopen in New York City on August 24

Openings     
Phase 4 began in NYC on July 20. Stay outside! (Forward.ny.gov) NO indoor dining!
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department o…

Delacroix’s Cats

Following its record-breaking debut at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the blockbuster Delacroix exhibit has opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While not all of the works could travel, as some are intrinsic to the Louvre, the big cats made the trip to the city. For the Delacroix exhibit poster, the Met has selected Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, the artist’s great and surprising painting from 1830, as the signature and defining work of the exhibition.


Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), known as the leading Romantic painter of his era, loved cats. His many notebooks show preparatory sketches of lions, tigers, and several charming domestic cats. The big cats, for the most part, made it into big paintings. At 52 x 76.6 in. (130 x 195 cm), Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830, is astonishingly large for an animal painting of his time, a size normally devoted to a history painting. His most famous work, La Liberté guidant le peuple, dates from the same year.�…