These photos, taken by Eugène Atget, document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization.
Atget took up photography in the late 1880s and supplied studies for painters, architects, and stage designers. Atget began shooting Paris in 1898 using a large format view camera to capture the city in detail.
His photographs, many of which were taken at dawn, are notable for their diffuse light and wide views that give a sense of space and ambience.
The city’s urban landscape had been recently reshaped by the modernization campaign known as Haussmannization—a necessarily destructive process led by (and named after) Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann that saw Paris’s medieval neighborhoods razed and transformed into wide avenues and public parks.
Those changes, in turn, kindled a broad interest in vieux Paris (“old Paris”), the capital in its pre-Revolutionary, 18th-century form.
Atget’s feeling for vieux Paris had been an integral part of his practice of making documents for other artists, but around 1900 that interest took center stage, as he established himself as a specialist in pictures of Paris.
Indeed, his calling card from the period read, “E. Atget, Creator, and Purveyor of a ‘Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris.’”
After taking a photograph, Atget would develop, wash, and fix his negative, then assign the negative to one of his filing categories with the next consecutive number that he would write the negative number in graphite on the verso of the negative and also scratch it into the emulsion.
He contact-printed his negatives onto pre-sensitized, commercially available printing-out papers; albumen paper, gelatin-silver printing-out paper, or two types of matte albumen paper that he used mainly after WW1.
The negative was clamped into a printing frame under glass and against a sheet of albumen photographic printing out paper, which was left out in the sun to expose.
The frame permitted inspection of the print until a satisfactory exposure was achieved, then Atget washed, fixed, and toned his print with gold toner, as was the standard practice when he took up photography.
Atget did not use an enlarger, and all of his prints are the same size as their negatives. Prints would be numbered and labeled on their backs in pencil then inserted by the corners into four slits cut in each page of albums.
Additional albums were assembled based on a specific theme that might be of interest to his clients, and separate from series or chronology.
During World War I, Atget temporarily stored his archives in his basement for safekeeping and almost completely gave up photography. Valentine’s son Léon was killed at the front.
From 1920–21, he sold thousands of his negatives to institutions. Financially independent, he took up photographing the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud, and Sceaux and produced a series of photographs of prostitutes.
Berenice Abbott, while working with Man Ray, visited Atget in 1925, bought some of his photographs, and tried to interest other artists in his work.
She continued to promote Atget through various articles, exhibitions and books, and sold her Atget collection to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.
In 1926, Atget’s partner Valentine died, and before he saw the full-face and profile portraits that Abbott took of him in 1927, showing him “slightly stooped…tired, sad, remote, appealing”, Atget died on 4 August 1927, in Paris.
Atget’s documentary vision proved highly influential, first on the Surrealists, in the 1920s, who found his pictures of deserted streets and stairways, street life, and shop windows beguiling and richly suggestive (these were published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1926, with a fourth, of a crowd gathered to watch an eclipse, on the cover); and then on two generations of American photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander.
His reception outside France was also shaped by The Museum of Modern Art. In 1968 the Museum purchased the contents of his studio from the American photographer Berenice Abbott, who was first introduced to Atget’s work in 1925, while she was working as a studio assistant for Man Ray.
Abbott became Atget’s posthumous champion, initiating the preservation of his archive and its transfer to New York. Comprising some 5,000 vintage prints and more than 1,000 glass plate negatives, it represents the largest and most significant collection of his work.
In 1931, four years after Atget’s death, the American photographer Ansel Adams wrote, “The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”
(Photo credit: Eugène Atget / MOMA / Wikimedia Commons).