Atget, Jean Eugene Auguste

French (1857-1927)

Jean Eugene Auguste Atget lived in relative obscurity during his lifetime. Unconcerned with an artistic reputation, Atget’s camera was merely a meal ticket, and he sold many of his shots to painters who wanted a record of real life from which to paint. In this way, over 10,000 images of the streets and architecture of old Paris might have been lost. But a young Berenice Abbott, working as an assistant to Man Ray, shot Atget’s portrait and began a friendship with the old man. She began sending curator friends to purchase his work and – after he died – purchased a large archive of his work, exhibiting, writing about and publishing the shots for the world to see. Today, he is considered a master photographer and chronicler of turn-of-the-century Paris.  

What distinguishes many of Atget’s photographs is their eerie, almost ghostly quality. His use of a long exposure time resulted in a wispy - almost misty – sense of light. And because this exposure time would result in blurriness if there was a lot of movement in the frame, Atget often shot in the early morning hours, so the streets have an abandoned, empty feeling to them that almost feels supernatural. Atget’s youth was spent as a sailor and as an actor, so he always had a heart for working class people, shunning some of the busier Paris corners, in favor of capturing shots in the off-street shops and cafes where these types would congregate. And form followed function; many of these shots avoid the “perfect” symmetry and crisp, clear printing that other photographers were pursuing.