Eugène Atget …Discover the Vertical Line

29th January 2021

Eugene Atget. Coin de quai Voltaire at rue de Nevres, 1926
When you discover the vertical line everything else is just framing.
’ (OCA Expressing Your Vision, Course Folder p.24)

Eugène Atget documented in great depth the architecture and street scenes of Paris. His Paris works include images on subjects such as architecture, street life and shop fronts.

…Gates, fountains, and sculptures were reproduced frontally, as would be shop displays and windows, peddlers and other modest traders, even brothels. Trees, flowers and frontages interested him just as much as bourgeois interiors and the slums of the rag-and-bone men.

Gautrand, 2020:20

In the book ‘50 Photographers You Should Know’ Peter Stephan writes,

‘Eugène Atget was a seaman and actor before teaching himself how to use a camera. Initially made as aids to artists, later acquired by museums, libraries, and art schools, Atget’s photographs – about 10,000 views of Paris and rural environs, made over the course of almost 40 years – amount to the most extensive and coherent archive of Old Paris and Old France in existence.’

Stepan, P (2008:37)

When studying his work I was fascinated by the vast amount of images he captured, the detail within them and the visual history that we now have of Paris past. Many of the images that he has captured remind me of the streets of today in the pandemic world we live in, quite apocalyptic visually due to the absence of people. The empty street scenes were taken very early in the day ‘… both to benefit from the transparent light of morning and to avoid traffic.’ (Gautrand, 2020:19)

Atget’s images show strong compositions with leading lines and focus points which are made even more dynamic by the buildings natural construction lines produced by the brick patterns and window frame lines.

Gautrand states that, not only did Atget rise early to take his photographs but he had to carry with him,

‘… a big and bulky 18×24 cm bellows camera fitted with a rectilinear lens with what seems to have been a limited focal length (if we were to judge by the foreground distortion in some of his pictures and the incomplete coverage of the plate by the image), a heavy wooden tripod, two or three boxes of glass plates, and a few other objects , adding up to atleast 15 kilograms that had to be lugged along miles of streets,’

Gautrand, (2020:19)

The images below show an example of a 18x24cm bellows camera, images (c) Swobos, catawiki.com

Eugène Atget PARIS book review

This fresh TASCHEN edition gathers some 500 photographs from the Atget archives to celebrate his oustanding eye for the urban environment and evocation of a Paris gone by. Down main streets and side streets, past shops and churches, through courtyards and arcades and the 20 arrondissements, we find a unique portrait of a beloved city and the making of a modern photographic master. 

Amazon.co.uk (accessed 31.01.21)

Hardback book with 621 pages which showcase Eugène Atget’s amazing photography taken between 1897 and 1927, the year that he died. The text is written in three languages, French, English and German and contains an introduction on Atget’s life and short historical overviews of all twenty Paris arrondissements (a word that I didn’t know). Each arrondissement’s text is accompanied by photographs from the area. Lastly the book is completed with a timeline biography which I found quite hard to read as the three languages seemed to blur into one another.

I was surprised at the size of the book when it arrived 8x6x1.5 inches, however, it may be small but it is perfect. The images are diverse showing many different subjects and each one is very interesting to study in their own right. I felt as though I was transported back in time due to the sheer amount of detail and information caught by his camera. I can see why artists of his time would buy copies of his work for their use as visual aids, I myself sketched four for this post but actually wanted to sketch many more due to the dynamic compositions which excited me, yes I really did say ‘excited’.

Although for this post and for the course I predominantly looked at buildings and Etget’s use of lines in his compositions, I was equally intrigued and ‘excited’ by his work containing portraits of the Parisians. Their clothes and their daily activities have been recorded for all time, their hair in pretty bows and their facial expressions of the young and old are amazing. This book really is a historical reference not just for Paris and it’s architecture but for the lives of those that walked the streets. ’Atget used such long exposure times that chance passers by vanished from the image, or appear as ghost like smudges.’ Stepan, P (2008:37).

Below images are from the book, Eugène Atget, Paris (2020: p58:p207:p191).

I have picked up this book, read it and picked it up many times again because every time I browse through it, I spot something else that is visually interesting. This book and Atget has jumped straight into my top five of photographers and photographer biographies.

Bibliography

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