Gerald M. Panter


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Atget in

Historical Perspective

In 1994, I became intrigued with the idea of combining my love for Paris with my passion for photography. I felt I could follow no better example than that set by Eugène Atget, whose photographs represent the quintessential views of the art, architecture and scenic urban life of Paris during the late 19th and early 20th century.  So I began, and continue, to locate and photograph hundreds of those remaining buildings, bridges, passageways and narrow streets which Atget had so beautifully photographed a century ago.


Though oncoming traffic, reconfigured streets, construction and innumerable other obstacles created a challenge to my project, nevertheless I succeeded in taking my photographs from the exact location and with the same perspective as those selected by Atget.  My photographs were then enlarged to the same size as the glass plates he used, 18 x 24 centimeters.  Placed side by side, the resulting diptychs invite the viewer to compare and contrast views of Paris taken a hundred years apart.


In spite of the ravages of time, wars, enemy occupation, riots and gentrification,  my diptychs reveal that much of the Paris which Atget photographed a hundred years ago still remains, generating nostalgia, as well as a celebration of a city’s respect and pride for its history. Like Shakespeare’s heroine, age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.


Acknowledging the significance of my study of Atget and his methodology, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of the City of New York hosted lectures given by me in connection with their major exhibitions of his work.


But following in his footsteps -- down those narrow, winding streets, many still retaining their cobblestone pavements -- has been considerably more than a mere academic experience.  There is, for me, an emotional response which never fails to be elicited when, turning the corner of some lesser-known little street in the 5th, I discover the very sight which caused Atget to pause, unburden himself of his cumbersome heavy wooden tripod, meticulously position his unwieldy view camera and beautifully capture a delightful piece of Paris for generations to come.


"A glory of which I could not speak filled me then like a shimmering of sunlight. It was the ten thousand famous photographs Atget had made of a Paris now gone, those great, voiceless images bathed in the brown of gold chloride – I was thinking of them and of their author, out before dawn every morning, slowly stealing a city from those who inhabited it, a tree here, a store front, an immortal fountain."


(Salter, James.  A Sport and A Pastime, New York: Modern Library, 1995, pp. 12-13.)


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