Profiles in Black & White: Eugene Atget

In Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on August 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.”

-Eugene Atget


French documentarian Jean Eugene Auguste Atget was born on February 12, 1857 in Libourne, France. Orphaned at an early age, Atget was largely raised by his grandparents in Bordeaux until he became a seafarer on a merchant ship. Originally his dream had been to be an actor. But when his country drafted him into military service, his lack of attendance at his drama school led to expulsion. An infection of the vocal chords was the final nail in the coffin, forcing him to pursue different forms of art.

Unlike other photographers, Atget didn’t pursue the craft until he was in his thirties. Initially, after acting, his interests were in painting. When his career failed to show promise, he transformed once more, leading to the paintbrush being replaced with a camera. Photography was starting to see much expansion near the end of the 19th century, and so Atget joined the commercial field. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Atget equipped himself with a standard box camera on a tripod with 180×240 mm glass negatives. Like the focus of many of his pictures, Atget’s methods were anachronistic, often using techniques that had been cast adrift for the latest way to take and develop a photo.

Atget went against the grain of a time where soft-focus pictorialism was most popular. Rather, he was determined to document and capture things in a manner as straightforward and accurate a manner as possible. But beyond simply documenting the facts a photograph could represent, Atget sought to understand and interpret the lush and storied traditions of France’s culture. At a time where Western civilization was being flung into the depths of modernization, Atget’s photographs would become cherished for their time capsule of Paris’s architecture and street scenes.

Unfortunately for the Frenchman, he did not see the commercial success one might hope within their lifetime. For one who might describe himself as a commercial photographer, the buyers of such work did not find many of his photos to be worth of purpose. While he certainly had a niche following during his lifetime, most appreciation did not come until after his death, when Berenice Abbot acquired his estate; she first published much of his work. Ironically, Atget’s works would inspire many within the Surrealism medium of art, including Man Ray and Jean Cocteau. He was 70 years old at the time of his death in 1927.

Gallery of Atget photos: Eastman Archive

  1. Just got the Szarkowski MOMA book on Atget. An astonishing talent. It will take a while to make my way through it. Also, just found your blog and look forward to reading it.

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