At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was in the throes of a massive project of redevelopment, transforming a medieval city into the place of grand boulevards, sweeping parks and nine-story apartment blocks that we know today. In 1897, an unemployed actor called Eugène Atget began photographing parts of the city that he feared would soon be demolished.Using a large-format bellows camera and shooting on glass plates, Atget documented narrow winding streets, bridges, shops and mundane scenes from everyday street life. He sold photos to artists as source material and also to the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Musée Carnavalet. Only in the 1980s was the Carnavalet’s collection reclassified from historical documentation to art, and original Atget prints from the institution form the basis of Eugène Atget: Old Paris, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Judy Annear, the AGNSW’s senior curator of photography, has been liaising with the Carnavalet since the 1990s about the possibility of an Atget show. Annear says that Atget is one of several great 20th century photographers whose work has not been properly shown in Australia until now.
“Atget was never interested in the spectacular,” she says. “There are no photographs of Art Nouveau buildings or the Moulin Rouge. He was interested in the small stuff: the local architecture, tradespeople on the street.”
And yet the work was to be hugely influential on both the Surrealists and the American documentary photography movement – Atget is considered the first 'modern' photographer. “In the 1920s, towards the end of his life, Atget was living on the same street as [surrealist photographer] Man Ray,” Annear explains. Man Ray loved the empty, mysterious quality of Atget’s pictures: streets vanishing off into the distance, reflections of unknown people in shopwindows, and curiosities like headless torsos in the window of a corset shop.
“This was just perfect surrealist material,” Annear says, citing the 1921 image ‘Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville.’ “It’s dark, there’s a shadowy figure peering out from the right, and you get that tantalising curve and light in the distance. Your mind just starts to fill up with narrative.”
American photographer Berenice Abbott was another fan. She saw Atget’s work at Man Ray’s studio, felt “the shock of realism unadorned” and took some back to America. “Abbott, Walker Evans and Ansel Adams looked at Atget’s work very closely so you could say that Atget underpins the trajectory of American photo documentary in the 20th century, which then feeds into the evolution of Australian photo documentary, through people like Max Dupain.”
It’s bizarre to think that the seeds of a photo such as Dupain’s ‘Sunbaker’ can be traced back to “a modest, obsessive individual who set out with an encyclopaedic vision of documenting Paris.”
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