By Bill Dobbins
Eugene Atet (1857-1927) started out to be an actor in Paris until that career was rendered difficult to pursue in 1897 due to an infection of his vocal cords, leading to his eventually becoming one the greatest photographers of the turn of the 20th century.
He was a great artist but did not see himself as such. To Atget, what he was doing was simply documenting the architecture of Paris at a time when Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussmann, was undertaking at the request of Napoleon III to demolish the historic medieval structures and narrow winding streets of Paris and replace them with new, modern buildings and broad avenues.
In other words, replacing the Paris of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with a city looking much as we see it now.
Atget took up painting, without much success. And then in 1890 began his career as a photographer. According to Wikipedia he supplied reference documents for artists: studies for painters, architects, and stage designers. But Atget considered what he was doing to be strictly utilitarian with no idea he was engaged in the creation of art.
Certainly, his photos were useful to painters who wanted to depict buildings or areas of the city that no longer existed. But they are even more so to historians in that these images are some of the most valuable historical records showing how Paris looked before major renovations changed everything forever. But Atget was unknowingly doing more than documentary photography. In hindsight we can now see he was creating art.
Great art is not defined on what the intention of the artist might be. Art is something that does something. It has an effect on the culture, changes minds of sensibilities, resonates with the viewer or listener on some higher aesthetic plane. Many would-be artists approach the creating of photographs, paintings, music, poems or other aesthetic activities with the loftiest of goals only to find the results fall far short of expectations. W. Somerset Maugham, writing in the novel The Moon and Sixpence, describes a painter who goes to Paris, lives in a cold-water flat, suffers hardship and privation, all in pursuit of his art.
The only problem is he lacks talent so his work never amounts to anything. As I said, it is results that count, not intent.
Eugene Atget definitely had talent. You can see it in his ability to show the buildings he photographed as monumental and archetypal. He understood composition, how to choose the best angles and lighting. Because of the slow speed of emulsions at that time most of his images are empty of people, giving the scene a sense of mystery and tension. He was not the only photographer shooting Paris at that point but he was one of the very best. Other photos of the city that date from that period rarely have the same impact and meaning.
Atget’s work was well respected and he managed to make a living through most of his career. In the 1920s he was able to sell thousands of his negatives to institutions, leaving him comfortable financially – unlike many early photographers of greatness who died in poverty.
As the 20th century went on, Atget was championed by other photographers such as Bernice Abbot and Man Ray and his reputation as a true artist rather than a journeyman documentarian began to grow. Abbot sold her collection of Atet photos to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: