Documents for artists, treated as art: Eugène Atget at MOMA

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Paris courtyard. (Eugene Atget, Museum of Modern Art)
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The sign outside the Paris studio of Eugène Atget was superlatively modest. It read: "Eugène Atget: Documents pour artistes."

What that meant was that he had photographs to sell to painters who could paint from them, or sculptors could sculpt from them, or for other uses for other mediums and métiers; it meant that it was the studio of a tradesman. But it was not, the sign suggested, a place that sold photography for its own sake; in other words, it was not photography-as-art.

Today, Atget is considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, and possibly the greatest street photographer of all time. Yet the title of the new Atget exhibition up the Museum of Modern Art is also "Documents pour artistes," and it's called that in part because it's meant to show what curators and art historians and photographers have thought for many years—that Atget may have been practicing photography as a trade, but that he knew what he was doing, and knew his photographs to have enormous artistic merit. Quite a few of the MOMA show's 106 photographs (organized into six themes) clearly display how, especially later in his life, Atget was taking photographs not for clients and not necessarily for the historical record, but for himself, and for photography's sake.

Not a great deal is known about Atget's early life, other than that he was born in 1857 into a working-class family, was orphaned relatively early on, went to work at sea for a time, and eventually landed in Paris, where he had a brief and unsuccessful career as an actor. Some time in the late 1880s he took up photography, and in a few years had established a business selling pictures that painters or sculptors or practitioners of other trades—metalwork, antiquarians—could make use of, which was a common practice at the time. Photography, in its early stages, was mainly prized for its ability to expedite portraiture or assist visual artists or tradespeople through its documentary capacity, but not as an art in and of itself.  

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A set of Atget's earliest work on display in the MOMA exhibition shows images of people performing various trades. These images are the ones that are most recognizable as stock photography: ragpicker, figurine seller, postman. They are compositionally somewhat contrived, but that's also the point of this sort of photograph; were you an artist who wanted to paint a woman selling bread on the street, Atget would have had exactly what you needed.

At the time Atget became a photographer, photography had moved from its earliest, experimental stages, and become a much easier proposition for someone as a line of work; pre-made, commercially produced dry plates had been developed, meaning photographers didn't have to coat their own plates (which meant having to tote around a portable darkroom and a number of chemicals) and could wander the city or the country with much greater freedom.  

And Atget did wander, through the parks and the streets and the courtyards of old Paris. He is perhaps best known, besides some images from his extremely late period, for his photographs of Paris parks. In these, views are normally sprawling, taking in vast views in deep perspective; people are just one part of the scenery. Some examples of Atget's park images on view in the exhibit are also somewhat formulaic—the sort of thing someone would sell to someone who wanted to paint a painting of a park.  

While the same could be said of much of his work, his documentation of street scenes transcends the formal and practical constraints most obviously; Atget was making a record of Paris as it was, and he knew it. The sweeping alterations that re-formed the city according to Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's plan, among which was the imposition of the imperial street grid, were undertaken between 1853 and 1870, yet Atget rarely photographed the grand boulevards, the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra, or any of Haussmann's other grand vistas. Artist or not, Atget made deliberate choices about his documentation; a photograph of the Eiffel Tower would have presumably sold well to artisans and the public alike; he kept his camera eye trained instead of Paris' narrow, crumbling streets.

Along those lines, his photographs of courtyards are particularly striking. A set of 14 of them hang together in the exhibition. Each courtyard image has the look of a happened-upon place. One imagines Atget, walking the streets for hours and poking his head around a corner, or behind some wall, and finding a space free for any to enter, but with so much intimacy and secrecy that even looking in felt like a trespass. It's that sense of innocent voyeurism that makes such images so compelling. It is also still what makes walking around parts of Paris intriguing. In such an old city there's a majesty in the sense of piled-up-ness that of odd corners, as though history had simply gathered, like dust over centuries, and taken the form of these small spaces.  

Atget always considered himself first and foremost a documentarian, and was widely hailed as such in his lifetime. Over the course of his career he sold groups of photographs and negatives to institutions like the Bibliothèque Nationale, and to the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Beginning the 1920s Atget's work began to catch the attention of contemporary artists. His work came to have a significant influence on Surrealist artists like Man Ray, as well as Picasso and Matisse, although Atget refused to be associated with them in any official capacity. Man Ray, when he was about 30, moved into a studio a few doors down from Atget's, and bought several prints from the older photographer. Ray's assistant, Berenice Abbott, became friendly with Atget, admired his work, and used to visit his studio.