Atget, Eugène

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ATGET, EUGÈNE (1857–1927), French photographer.

Eugène Atget became a photographer after a relatively unsuccessful career as an artist, and this background strongly influenced his photography. Atget set out to become a servant of the arts and kept the inscription "documents pour artistes" (documents for artists) above the door of the photographic store that he opened in 1892. His clientele consisted mainly of painters, sculptors, and architects. The photos that he presented there—reproductions of pictures, landscapes, and monuments—were in themselves creative documents.

Architectural subjects were a natural choice for Atget. The abundance of endangered architectural constructions, which were inventoried by the Commission of Old Paris so that they could be documented, meant that he had an important source of images. From 1898 onward, he devoted himself to this work exclusively, producing 8,500 negatives that document Paris and the surrounding areas. These negatives required a rigorous filing system to be commercially viable, and Atget therefore numbered each of his negatives and established an archiving system that led, after several modifications, to a body of work that falls into six broad categories:

  • Paysage-documents divers (landscapes-various documents)
  • Paris pittoresque (picturesque Paris)—series that portrayed city life: Les Petits Métiers (1899–1901; Small trades), and two commissions from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Métiers, boutiques et étalages de Paris (Trades, shops, and stalls of Paris) and Zoniers: Vue et types de la zone militaire (1910; Zoniers: View of the military zone and its inhabitants)
  • Le Vieux Paris (Old Paris [1898–1900])—topographical views and architectural features
  • L'art dans Le Vieux Paris (Art of Old Paris [from 1901])—photographs of architectural features (door knockers, moldings, staircases, wooden paneling, balconies, signs), which became the source of Atget's professional prestige
  • Environs de Paris (Parisian suburbs [after 1901] and major suburbs)—Versailles, Saint Cloud, Sceaux, Rouen, Beauvais, Amiens
  • Topographie de Vieux Paris (Topography of Old Paris)—commissioned and supervised by the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Paris (1906)

In general, aside from any commercial purpose it may have, photography breaks the bounds of genre. Although the concern with detail, the clarity of the image, and the mastery of light are essential characteristics of the documentary genre, Atget deployed them with a strong emotional intent. It is probably the American photographer Walker Evans who best expressed this quality of Atget's work, writing in 1931: "His general note is lyrical understanding of the street, trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, eye for revealing detail, over all of which is thrown a poetry which is not 'the poetry of the street,' or 'the poetry of Paris,' but the projection of Atget's person" (pp. 125–128).

The image in Atget's photography may show a casual stroller, but the photographer was a convinced socialist (Atget lectured in educational institutions for working-class adults and read the socialist press), which casts some doubt on the objectivity of the document produced. Everyday objects in the streets (brooms, carts) and the faces of café waiters reflected in the brasserie facades are details superimposed on the purely cadastral document while also evoking a city that belongs to those who live and work there.

This divergence between the intention of the image and the actual product, whether it springs from a conscious or unconscious intent or from an interpretation that no image ever escapes, means

that Atget is remembered more as a creator than as a simple producer of images. It was this disparity that interested the surrealists, leading then to publish some of Atget's later photographs in the June 1926 issue of La Révolution surréaliste and to adopt him as a surrealist artist. However, by stating that "these are simple documents that I am making," Atget firmly rejected any artistic status.

See alsoParis; Photography.


Badger, G. Eugène Atget. London, 2001.

Evans, Walker. "The Reappearance of Photography." Hound and Horn (October–December 1931): pp. 125–128.

Nesbit, Molly. Atget's Seven Albums. New Haven, Conn., 1992.

Nesbit, Molly, and F. Reynaud. Intérieurs parisiens. Paris, 1992.

Szarkowski, John, and Maria Morris Hambourg. The Work of Atget. 5 vols. New York, 1981–1985.

Alexandra Koeniguer