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.  

One photograph from this period depicts a group of people looking at the sky during an eclipse; it manages to look both communal and creepy, as if they were all waiting to be lifted off the earth. It was that image that Man Ray put on the cover of La Révolution surréaliste, but Atget, by his own choice, was not credited, nor was he credited for the several images Man Ray put inside the journal. Though the Surrealists were interested in his work, it meant something to Atget not to be associated with avant-garde artists.  

Atget always valued his work over fame, and Abbott can be credited for his legacy in the history of photography and his popular renown. MOMA's full collection of more than 5,000 Atget prints comes from the contents of his studio when he died; they were purchased from his estate by Abbott and came to the museum in 1968. In later years she arranged exhibits of his work, printed and wrote about it, and put together an archive of her own and others' writing about Atget.

Of all the material on display in the current MOMA show, it is Atget's very latest work, completed when he was in his late 60s, that has the most urgent feeling of a purpose beyond documentation.  

Though in the literature and the gallery of the show Atget's Parc de Sceaux photographs are held up as a paradigm of his development as a photographer and a person, just as different from his early work are three prints from Avenue des Gobelins. He had taken numerous photographs on different streets of storefronts selling clothes (the Surrealists were particularly interested in the storefront series) but these three from Avenue des Gobelins show storefronts selling more modern, fancier clothes. These have multiple exposures, creating ghostlike images of mannequins of men in suits and children in dresses on top of one another, the exposures moving from right to left, as if they are walking out of the window onto the street.  

The very final set of images, from the Parc de Sceaux, are artistic in approach, look, and feel. They are portraits of a crumbling, ancient, leftover park from the deep Parisian past: just the sort of thing Atget had always been drawn to. He marked the time of day of each of the photographs—one caption, for example, reads "Parc de Sceaux, avril, 7 h. matin"—which he had never done before, and in a way that is almost diaristic. These were taken in 1925; he died in 1927; his last photograph of the park was taken as its restoration was under way.

ATGET NEVER CHANGED THE METHODS BY WHICH he processed his negatives and developed his photographs, even though by the time of his late career profound advances had been made in producing the film canisters and easy printing that came to define photography for the remainder of the 20th century, until its most recent shift to digital. In typical fashion, Atget was not interested in modernity; as he kept to the old Paris in his photographs, he kept to the old methods to process them.

Not much attention is normally paid to Atget's work with human figures, which was rather limited, yet some of his most compelling photos are those images he took, between 1910 and 1913, of Gypsies and other itinerant families living in impermanent structures in zoniers (zones outside the fortifications of Paris).

Years after the zonier photographs, in 1921, Atget took another remarkable series of portraits: a series of images of prostitutes ("fille publique faisant le quart") as part of a brief commission from the artist André Digimont. Although Digimont terminated the project after only a few images had been produced, apparently because the women did not look as indelicate as he would have liked, these photographs are significant, falling somewhere between the art object and the uninflected document, as if he had stumbled upon the gypsies and prostitutes just where they were on the streets or in their makeshift homes. It's the framing that's the giveaway, reaching for a higher plane; it's possible to see something of a voice in these photos that's not always evident in his unpeopled park and street scenes.  

Despite the compelling concept behind the show, and its successful demonstration of that concept, this is not a collection that most definitively illustrates the unintentional genius for which Atget is known—the quality that has made this non-artist part of art history—in other words, it's not the best of MOMA's enormous collection.

But what comes through in this selection of photographs is the breadth of his work and the roles that he played: here is Atget the consummate professional, working for a client; here is Atget the meticulous, curious observer and recorder; here he is as the accidental artist; and finally, here is the work he did toward the end of his life, during the time when his continued refusal to call himself an artist was possibly more a stubborn habit than an entirely honest reflection of his practice. As MOMA curator Sarah Hermanson Meister said at the media preview for the exhibition, "you really almost can't imagine who the client might have been … except for Atget."

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