Eugène Atget,
Voir Paris in 8 photos

April 2021

See / Revisit

“A source of inspiration.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“The Father of the Church of Photography.” – Walker Evans.

“The Balzac of the Camera” – Bérénice Abbott.

A prolific photographer of Paris at the turn of the century credited with nearly 20,000 photos, Eugène Atget (1857-1927) captured all of Paris with his bellows camera, a tripod and a black drape, then sold his prints to institutions and artists including Braque and Man Ray. His poetic and delicate photographic exploration of this iconic city will be exhibited at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris*. Historian Anne de Mondenard, curator of the exhibition and head of the Photography and Digital Department at the Carnavalet Museum, zooms in on 8 of Atget’s photos.

1. Paris Cabaret

At 25, rue des Blancs Manteaux, in the Marais district of Paris, Eugène Atget caught  the gaze of a waiter with a glossy moustache, his hair slicked back and elegantly clad in a black suit and bow tie. Taken from a series of photographs titled “signs and old stores in Paris”, the image speaks to the life of the cabarets and their ornate 1900s facades. These cabarets were hubs of entertainment where guests could eat and drink, attend shows and often burst into song or dance. Anne de Mondenard calls this an iconic image of Eugène Atget’s work where the “ghostly” presence of the character is coupled with the photographer’s reflections.

 

Photo above: Cabaret of the Armed Man. September 1900.

2. Neighborhood life

Also known as workshop cars, “voitures à bras” aka steering cars helped movers, ragpickers and merchants of all kinds move around Paris, navigating their way amongst the 80,000 horses (and the dung they left in their wake) and the beautiful automobiles. Street signs are among the most telling remnants of an era. Signs painted on walls gave insight onto the daily life in each Parisian neighborhood. This image of a beautiful morning, of a day ready to come alive, is representative of the photographer’s attention to the detail and affinity for playing with light and shadow. The spire of Notre-Dame-de-Paris stands in the background as if it is piercing the sky.

 

Photo above: Rue des Chantres, Paris 4ème. 1923.

3. The Magic staircase

A photographer with an attention to detail, driven by his desire to capture life’s moments over and over again, Eugène Atget crisscrossed Paris in search of old hotels, particularly those with a real soul. From their fountains to the architecture and decorative elements of their facades and courtyards, he photographed everything that he found to be of historical or artistic interest. The former Sully-Charost Hotel on the rue du Cherche-Midi was a private mansion built in 1686 where counts and countesses and great Parisian families lived. Here, the photographer highlights a sumptuous staircase and its wrought iron banister, lit up in flashes, or plunged into darkness.

 

Photo above: Former Sully-Charost hotel, 11 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris 6th. 1904.

4. Street Life

Amidst the maze of streets, Eugène Atget captured the daily life of small Parisian businesses, street vendors and stalls overflowing on the sidewalks. He captured all the bustling activity that defined life in the different neighborhoods, squares and suburbs, and shaped the physiognomy of Old Paris. Captured at the Entrepôts de Bercy, a warehouse and the Parisian crossroads of wine at the beginning of the 20th century, this photograph reveals a cooperage and its craftsman posing (on the right of the photo) for posterity. The posters mention the presence of cider merchants alongside wine merchants, dockers, wagoners and cellar masters.

 

Photo: A corner of the Bercy warehouse, rue Léopold XIII, Paris 12ème. 1913.

5. Mirror mirror on the wall

Home to the Austrian Embassy until the end of the First World War, the Hôtel de Matignon was owned by the Duchess of Galliera and housed the Count of Paris and his family until the end of the 19th century. In this photo, Eugène Atget captured the building from every angle. Here, the photographer’s darkroom, covered with his traditional black drape, is exposed against the backdrop of the living room and fireplace with mirrors. This photo represents Eugène Atget’s solitary adventures, always walking around Paris alone and without an assistant, patiently choosing all his subjects and themes. Although present in his work, these images of Parisian bourgeois life are just a tiny fraction of the thousands of prints representing his work.

 

Photo: Austrian Embassy, 57 rue de Varenne, 7th. 1905.

6. In the name of glory

An urban historian, Eugène Atget liked to photograph the many street signs in the capital, usually while Paris was still asleep. From painted letters to the playful typography that often invaded the public space, he captured the signs of the specialists such as ear nose and throat doctors, clinics, photographers’ studios, railway offices that occupied each floor such as those in this photo, at the corner of Place Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Hautefeuille. This series captures the popular art of commerce of the early twentieth century.

 

Photo above: Corner of Place Saint-André-des-Arts and rue Hautefeuille, 6th. 1912.

7. In the zone

On the outskirts of the capital, Eugène Atget poetically immortalized the “fortifications”, a wall built by Adolphe Thiers around Paris between 1841 and 1844. Outside the enclosure, its moat and outer wall, a 300-meter wide no man’s land formed “the zone”. Eugène Atget was one of the only photographers to have immortalized this space, a strip of land that was supposed to have remained untouched but where barracks, trailers, workers and more marginalized groups had already settled. He depicted the social conditions of this “original” neighborhood, with its own distinct way of life, its own organization, its own architecture, but never represented the area as miserable or depressing.

 

Photo above: Fortifications, Porte de Sèvres, Paris 15th. 1923.

8. Along the water

Although Eugène Atget gave up very early on the artistic dimension of his photographs, favoring a more “documentalist” spirit in his work, the image of the Pont Marie reflects his romantic vision of the capital. Sensitive to the play of light and shadow, he captures a moment in this view oozing with charm.

 

Photo above: A corner of the Pont Marie, Paris 4th arrodissement. 1921.

*Exhibition “Eugène Atget, Voir Paris”, from 18 May to 15 August at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris.

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