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A Parisian Detour: Eugène Atget at MoMA

(revised 2017) Photographer Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) made over 8500 pictures of Paris during his prolific life as an artist - the romantic city's cobblestone streets, its windows with store mannequins, luscious but tamed parks, mysterious courtyards, his own neighborhood in the 5th arrondissement, and much more - but he did not take one picture of the Eiffel Tower. Not one.

Atget didn't like to pander to the postcard set. His Paris was the ephemeral pre-modern city, a place of irregular streets and organ grinders, and less the modern city of planner Baron Haussmann's domineering boulevards and that new soaring engineering marvel constructed in the Champ de Mars in 1889.

Eugène Atget. Cour, 7 rue de Valence, June 1922. Matte albumen silver print, 7 x 8 15/16″ (17.8 x 22.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden

A 2012 exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) titled Eugène Atget: "Documents pour artistes" displayed a handful of Atget's well-known images but, pleasingly for those already familiar with these works, many more less well-known pictures from MoMA's extensive collection. Curator Sarah Hermanson Meister organized the works into six categories that represented Atget's career, ones that mimic the artist's own system of archiving his material.

Working as a provider of photographic source material for artists, Atget grouped images into categories such as courtyards, certain types of Parisians (musicians, factory workers, prostitutes), parks (like his beloved Luxembourg Gardens, or a series on the splendid Parc de Sceaux, as shown at MoMA), store windows, and neighborhoods. The MoMA exhibit displays images that Atget printed himself. Though critic Walter Benjamin famously claimed that reproducible works such as photographs lack authenticity or aura, these images on MoMA's walls, made with Atget's hand, nevertheless seem to have it.

Eugène Atget. Luxembourg, 1923-25. Matte albumen silver print, 7 x 8 13/16″ (17.8 x 22.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden

Atget's Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève from June 1925 (below) reveals characteristics of his photography while also suggesting the qualities that lead many to romanticize these types of street scenes. First of all, here we're in the Left Bank's 5th arrondissement, Atget's neighborhood, looking south on the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève toward the street's intersections with both Rue Descartes, marked with a wall sign on the left of the picture, and Rue de l'Ecole Polytechnique, as noted on the sign just to the right of center. On the left and right, two cafés establish the milieu of this student-centered Latin Quarter neighborhood.

Eugène Atget. Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, June 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 6 11/16 x 8 3/4″ (17 x 22.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden

It has rained. As our eye follows the wet narrow street winding its way to the background, we get a glimpse beyond of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, a church that houses the shrine of Sainte-Geneviève and the tombs of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine. (Wikipedia). A large fading ghost sign adorns the wall in the middle distance, just above a smaller sign advertising an art supply store nearby on the tiny Rue Laplace. The photograph is vignetted, typical of an Atget. This affect of softened corners forces the viewer's attention toward the center, to encourage an exploration of the receding street. The lack of color forces an emphasis on tones, composition and shapes.

Let's take a quick virtual detour to contemporary Paris and look at the same intersection on Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève via Google Street View (below). While the viewpoint and perspective is different from Atget's photograph - in this case, from the multiple cameras atop Google's van, we can still sort out comparisons and contrasts with the same subject matter.


View Larger Map

First, we can recognize the building on the right, and it looks much the same as in the Atget photo. An obvious difference, the bricks have been removed from the street surfaces and are paved over. New bumper guards help safely guide automobiles through the narrow streets. The section of the street on the left has been replaced with a paved pedestrian plaza, filled here with some snappy-looking motorbikes (just drag the cursor over a bit). What appears to be an outdoor fruit stand in the Atget photograph is gone. The ghost sign is gone. Note, however, that the Google image is dated "June 2008," and things may have changed at this intersection since that time.

Following Atget, we need to make the documents. A restaurant we like will one day close. A favorite café will be shuttered. The bookstore may soon see its final days. Making pictures should be easier to do these days than hauling a big view camera out onto the streets. Still, many people love the look of these old pictures, and we've conveniently constructed the means to produce a ready-made visual nostalgia of our own lost cities. Our camera phones often include apps with vintage looks, with several options for black and white and settings for a vignette. But, to make art, we need a command of light and form and a heightened sense of perception. These qualities belong to an artist. Paris was charmed to have had Atget.

Related post, "The City as Archive and as Playground: Atget's Paris, and Lessons for New York." (WOTBA February 2, 2010).

Additional: The Google Street View of 7 rue de Valence, the location of the first Atget image in this post, indicates a complete erasure of the former site. (map)

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