Gerald M. Panter
EUGENE ATGET IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Eugène Atget (1857-1927) embraced the emerging art of photography and set for himself a goal which he was to pursue, tirelessly and with unwavering conviction for the remaining years of his life: to document every aspect of French civilization which he considered artistic or picturesque.
Laboring alone and in relative obscurity for 25 years, Atget created over 3,500 photographs of the architecture, decoration and scenic urban life of Paris, images which have come to be considered the quintessential views of Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Eighty years of scholarly study and public acclaim confirm that Atget was too modest in characterizing his photographs as "simply documents I make." He succeeded in looking beyond photography and found the essence of things; this enabled him to express himself in a totally personal way and distinguish himself from his contemporaries.
Breaking from the rigid and uninspired conventions of his time, Atget rejected both the panoramic and the bird's eye view. In his photographs, the architecture is seen from the perspective of a pedestrian, allowing the specific character of the building to be isolated and savored. Where others had generalized and summarized, Atget revealed what was specific and unique.
Comparing Atget's work with that of his best-known predecessor, Charles Marville (1816-1879), demonstrates another of Atget's artistic contributions. Marville had been commissioned to make a comprehensive documentation of the vast districts of old housing that were to be demolished as part of Napoleon III's plan to transform Paris into a modern capital. Marville's photographs do not linger over any particular building, warm to its charm or embrace its artistic qualities. Instead (perhaps because these buildings were slated for destruction anyway), Marville chose a position from which he could see straight to the end of even the most narrow, winding street, enabling him to photograph the maximum number of structures with one shot.
Proceeding neither under the dictates of a commission nor at the pleasure of any entity, Atget could be true to his own vision, free from the pragmatic consideration of trying cram as much information as possible into each photograph. Instead, he had and used the liberty of concentrating on a narrow segment of the street, seeking to get the maximum amount of information from a particular selected building. Thus, he had neither the need nor the inclination to bend his vision to conform to the accepted rules for rendering architecture, such as using an arch or the edge of an adjacent building to frame a composition at the top and sides (putting a highlight around the central building and rendering everything else in deep shadow) or the officially-sanctioned rule for architectural drawings and photographs: that the camera be placed before the facade head-on and dead center.
Free from the stifling mandates which others either were obligated or felt bound to adhere to, Atget charted his own course and succeeded in portraying what was artistic and picturesque in a manner that, itself, was artistic and picturesque. In doing so, he became the model of the objective approach for generations of photographers dedicated to the documentary style.
Consistent with his devotion to what he called "l’art dans le vieux Paris" (the art of old Paris), Atget all but ignored the modern, industrialized aspects of the world in general, and Paris in particular. Instead, his vision was directed to the city's historic past.
Working in the early twentieth century when Paris was a city of some three million people, Atget sought to recreate the atmosphere of a city of only half a million. To produce his portrait of Old Paris, he had to imagine that the city had not yet undergone industrialization, administrative and economic centralization, and the great migrations of Frenchmen from the provinces; that it had no running water or electricity; no trains, taxis, or regular bus service; no cast-iron and glass market pavilions or covered passages; no posters, kiosks, and few newspapers; that nobody drove in the Bois de Boulogne, watched horse races at Longchamp, shopped at Bon Marche, or frequented sidewalk cafes. Time had to be rolled back to an era when the Bois was the site of duels and Longchamp of an abbey, when necessities were sold in small boutiques and luxuries were made to order, when there were no sidewalks, much less sidewalk cafes. In short, for the purpose of this project, Atget had to ignore all the amenities of the nineteenth century.¹
As a measure of his disciplined vision, Atget actively photographed while Paris was bombarded by German heavy artillery, suffered the disastrous flooding of the Seine in 1910 and was host to two major international expositions (1889 and 1900); yet, he elected not to take a single photograph of the destruction wrought by the bombardment, the crippling effects of the inundation, the extraordinary crowds or the fantastic structures built for the expositions (including the 1889 Eiffel Tower and the 1900 gigantic Ferris wheel).
In November, 1920, Atget offered his enormous assemblage of glass-plate negatives and unsold prints from his Vieux Paris collection to the Service Photographique des Monuments Historiques. Without boasting, Atget could write "For more than twenty years by my own work and personal initiative, I have gathered from all the old streets of Vieux Paris photographic plates, 18'' x 24'' format, artistic documents of the beautiful civic architecture of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century: the old hotels, historic or curious houses, beautiful facades, beautiful doors, beautiful woodwork, door knockers, old fountains, stairways de style (wood and wrought iron), the interiors of all the churches of Paris. This vast artistic and documentary collection is today complete. I could say that I possess all of Vieux Paris."
Indeed, notwithstanding the ready availability of cameras, equipment, film and the knowledge to use them, as well as the large number of photographers (professional and amateur) in Paris, no other contemporary of Atget could make such a claim.
¹ John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg, The Work of Atget, Vol. II, "The Art of Old Paris" (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982), pp. 166-167.
ON ATGET'S PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE
Atget used a simple 18 x 24 cm. glass-plate view camera, with short-focus rectilinear lens. Its rising front enabled the architectural elements, especially the vertical lines of buildings, to appear straight and in alignment in the final photographic image. Though such positioning resulted in the dark round arch which appears at the top of many of his images, Atget's prime concern was to portray the purity of the lines of the central subject and what appeared at the sides was of much less importance to him.
The glass "plaques au gelatine-bromure d'argent" (plates coated with an emulsion of gelatine impregnated with silver bromide) used by Atget were made by the famous Lumière brothers, inventors and manufacturers of the first commercially-marketed color transparencies. Although labeled "extra rapide," the emulsion was not very light sensitive. This fact, coupled with Atget's practice of using a small lens aperture for sharp focus, required exposures often lasting several seconds. Thus we see the blurred images and wispy trails left by all but the most slow-moving animals, vehicles and people (except for those few people who agreed to pose for him).
With the erroneous idea that it would preserve the plates, Atget adopted the custom of applying a coat of varnish to them. Unfortunately, this practice proved to be a mistake; many of the plates have been disfigured by coatings which, over the years, have peeled, cracked and turned yellow.
The prints that were made from the glass-plate negatives were known as albumen prints, since they were prepared by impregnating paper with a mixture of table salt and whipped egg white. After the paper dried, it was sensitized with silver nitrate and dried in the dark. The sensitized paper was inserted in a printing frame which forced it into close contact with the negative and exposed to sunlight until the desired density and tonality was achieved. Long exposure to daylight was required, since the image was completely printed out during the exposure (rather than being chemically developed after exposure as modern-day papers are).
Lack of uniformity in the density, contrast and tone of the prints resulted from fluctuations in the intensity of the light and the length of the paper's exposure to it, neither of which could be controlled or measured with exactitude.
Since the albumen prints fixed without any chemical toning turned an unattractive brick-red color, Atget, like many of his contemporaries, processed his prints in a toning bath to give them an acceptable hue. A toning bath of gold chloride and a mild alkali produced a variety of hues, depending on the concentration of gold and the length of time the print remained in the toner. Lower concentrations of gold produced a sepia color, higher concentrations gave results ranging from purple to blue-black.
After toning, the prints were immersed in a fixing bath. However, this bath altered the initial hue so that, even with much experience and practice, exact and consistent results were the exception, rather than the rule. When dry, the prints were trimmed by hand, with little concern for either consistency or exactitude; their average trimmed dimensions were 17.5 x 22 cm.
During the course of his almost thirty years of photography, Atget used different papers, a factor which further accounted for the difference in appearance of his prints. As a general rule, the prints made prior to the First World War were on thin, shiny, faintly-pebbled albumen paper which, after being gold toned, ranged in color from chamois to deep sepia. Those post-war prints that were made on albumen paper had whiter whites and a purplish cast in the deeper tones; others had a matte surface and a cool gray-to-violet range of color, while others had either a glossy polish or a matte surface, with dark russet and chocolate tones.
Variations in the manufacture, composition and application of the early non-standardized toning chemistry were yet additional factors precluding print-to-print uniformity. A great many of the more popular images were reprinted over the years as demand for Atget's work increased. His use of what were the current papers and chemicals at the time of reprinting resulted in distinct variations among prints made from the same negative.
© 2005-2014 G.M. Panter. All rights reserved.