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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









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