In December, I reviewed an exhibit at Pace MacGill of vintage prints by the French photographer Eugène Atget whose work has served as an inspiration for almost all the twentieth century documentary photographers who followed him. Berenice Abbott, Brassaï and Walker Evans, among others, were deeply indebted to him in the development of their own styles. But beyond their historical importance, Atget's prints are notable for the sheer beauty with which they depicted turn of the century Paris. They are magnificent works of art in their own right.
What makes Atget a unique figure in the history of the medium is that, oddly enough, he never made any claim to be a photographer. As far as can be determined, Atget only took up the camera after he had failed at both acting and painting and then for no other purpose than to pay his rent. His advertisement read simply "Documents for Artists." The implication here, of course, was that he was not an artist himself but only providing prints for reference to those who were themselves creative.
But this is really only a guess. Atget's own thoughts on his work and even on photography in general must forever remain unknown since he never made any statement concerning them (even though he was quite voluble on other subjects). He worked in obscurity throughout his entire career without ever seeking or receiving any recognition for his remarkable achievement. It was only in the months before his death that his work first came to the attention of other photographers. By then it was too late. Atget died in complete ignorance of the influence his prints would exert on the history of photography and of the fame that would come to him posthumously. Nevertheless, it seems impossible that he could have trudged with his view camera day after day along the streets of Paris and set up literally tens of thousands of shots without ever having formed any aesthetic or any ideas on the nature and practice of photography. The very genius of his oeuvre argues against such a supposition.
It was the Surrealists who first discovered Atget. Brassaï made his acquaintance in 1925 while visiting the art dealer Léopold Zborowski and was entranced by the large (24" x 30") prints he was shown. Man Ray also lived close by and stopped by long enough to purchase a few carefully chosen prints and then saw to it that his neighbor's work was published in la Révolution surréaliste. More importantly, Man Ray introduced Berenice Abbott, who was his assistant at the time, to Atget; it was she who was really responsible for preserving his photography and bringing it to the attention of the public. After Atget's death, she bought almost the entire stock of his glass plate negatives and prints and then took them with her to New York when she returned to America from France. She was thereafter tireless in proselytizing the late artist's work. It was Abbott in fact who first showed Atget's prints to Walker Evans who thereupon experienced an epiphany in the creation of his own documentary photography. The depth of Atget's influence can clearly be seen in Evans's American Photographs and other publications.
Atget: The Pioneer is, unfortunately, not the best work on its subject. It is prefaced by three essays, none of which are particularly informative and are almost entirely lacking in biographical detail. The presentation is also problematic. In attempting to emphasize Atget's influence on later photographers, the book places his own photographs side by side with theirs. This is distracting, and the juxtaposition is sometimes jarring. The reproductions are of good quality but those of Atget's work represent only a small fraction of his output. There is, however, one group of photos, accompanied by an essay by Sylvie Aubenas, of the trees at the Saint-Cloud Park with which I had not previously been familiar and are definitely worth viewing.