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Atget's Style

Text by James Borcoman, from Eugene Atget, 1857-1927


The subject and style of Atget's work may be analyzed as part of a continuum begun by the Paris School in the 1850s. On one level, the concept of photography as a pictorial and archaeological museum, first declared by Francis Wey in 1851, is an integral part of Atget's vision. Atget's desire to record the evidence of the former glories of French civilization and his sensibility to the presence of the object are direct links with the perception of the earlier photographers. Even his photographs of street trades have their roots in such genre studies as Charles Negre's Chimney Sweeps Walking, autumn 1851.

On another level, less obvious than the first, is the manner in which Atget continued certain pictorial traditions employed by the first generation of French photographers. And yet, in apparent contradiction to these traditions, the emphasis upon surface information in Atget's work suggests, at first glance, a radical change in formal priorities - an approach more in keeping with French photography after 1860.

Theory of Sacrifices

Atget's technique, which depended upon the transparency of the glass negative and the clarity of the albumen print, emphasized sharply defined surface information and would seem, therefore, to be at odds with the theory of sacrifices practiced by the photographers of the early 1850s. Enfolding shadows, framing shadows, and obscuring shadows, so essential to the picturesque tradition and adapted as much as possible by many of the early photographers, became more and more prominent in Atget's work as it evolved over the years from the early visual records to the later more personal response to the mood of place.

Surface information remains important in the work, but often is accompanied by large areas in which information is reduced or suppressed entirely. In fact, one of the most important factors in Atget's style is the manner in which he chose to play with the theory of sacrifices. Atget's prints are often known for their deep shadows and washed-out highlights, large enough in size to create broad abstract shapes. Although it has been assumed that these were the product of careless printing techniques, it is remarkable how such shapes operate as strong formal elements within his pictures. At times, Atget chose to strengthen this quality even further by printing on mat albumen paper. The character of the mat papers, with their soft surfaces and lack of emulsion, is very close to the salted papers of the 1850s. Although they are capable of producing precise definition, at the same time they lend themselves well to the suppression of information. Highlights are soft and shadows sink into the paper.

Although Atget's style may have some of its roots in aspects of early French paper photography, there is also a vast difference. The theory of sacrifices that underlay the concept of pictorial effect in photography of the 1850s trod a close path to the picturesque style of handmade images, often employing the hand to achieve the effect. Atget, however, arrived at his broad effect of light and shadow through photographic means alone, resulting in what we have come to identify as a purely photographic vision, unlike that of his contemporary Robert Demachy. Although Atget and Demachy sometimes chose similar subjects, including landscapes, architecture, nudes, and views along the Seine, the results could not have been further apart.

Dispelling the Myth of Naivete

That Atget rarely dated a print has led to one of the most frustrating obstacles in analyzing his work. Now that the research conducted by the Museum of Modern Art, New York has yielded the key to his system of numbering negatives, we are in a position at last to study the evolution of his style, which in turn has helped to dispel the myth that Atget was a naive artist with little control over his work. Such differences of style that were apparent often were passed off as being the product of differences in subject matter, thereby suggesting the absence of a strong artistic personality.

This myth of naivete began to circulate in the press almost immediately after his death, when a larger audience grew from the little group of admirers who used to drop in at 17 bis Rue Campagne-Premiere to pay their respects during the last years of Atget's life. His work was included in the First Independent Salon of Photography held at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in June 1928, along with Berenice Abbott, Laure Albin Guillot, Hoyningen-Huene, Germaine Krull, Man Ray, Paul Outerbridge, and Nadar. It was Atget's first exhibition, and others soon followed in America, the first being in New York in 1932, as part of a Surrealist show at the Julien Levy Gallery.

One of the earliest reviews of Atget's work appeared in Varietes in December 1928. Its author saw him both as a primitive and a visionary. Often the comparison was to the naive painter Henri Rousseau, a notion repeated in an American periodical of January 1929 describing what Americans could see in Paris that season. Pierre MacOrlan, the Montmartre poet who wrote the introduction to the first book of Atget's photographs in 1930, furthered the myth of Atget as the simple man. With the exclusion of Berenice Abbott, who wrote her first article on Atget in 19296 - and hers was a voice crying in the wilderness - we do not find critics writing of Atget as a profoundly intelligent and sophisticated artist until the late 1960s. Prior to this, more often than not, discussions of Atget's work revolved around the subject matter, emphasizing nostalgia to the exclusion of artistry.

The Viewing Experience

Photography, more than any other medium, falls prey to confusion over the nature of the viewing experience, over the relationship of subject matter to image. We forget all too easily that the subject matter in a photograph is experienced by the viewer only at second hand, thus ensuring it to be a vicarious experience exclusively. What the viewer really encounters when looking at a photograph is a two-dimensional sheet of paper, the surface of which is marked by shapes and tones that function as signs and symbols. This is the viewer's actual experience.

The ambiguity between the vicarious and the actual experience creates a tension in the viewer that gives photography its unusual quality as an artist's medium, that lends to photography its mystery. Often enough, the more the photograph appears to function as a mirror, the more the mystery deepens. It is at this point, too, that a photographer's style may be at its most elusive sensed, but indescribable.

Atget acquired the reputation of the photographer who hid his hand so deftly that the viewer was misled into thinking no photographer existed. On the surface there appeared to be something especially transparent about Atget's style to the point that viewers and critics alike tended to accept his photographs simply as windows through which one walked into the world of the subject matter without encountering the photograph. Hence the number of writings ostensibly about Atget, but in fact about Paris. Beneath the surface, however, lies something that has marked his style in a manner so profound that no other photographer has ever been able to imitate it. This uniqueness may be explained partially by the reverence with which Atget approached his subject, explaining why the viewer's response is so often to the subject matter.

If the essence of Atget's style is difficult to analyze, the external trappings are more easily described. Often the evolution of an artist's style will provide clues to its definition. Profound differences are apparent when we compare Atget's early photographs made around the turn of the century with those produced several decades later.


In the early views of Paris streets, light is external and illuminates its subject with an even clarity; it is for the most part the light of midday when shadows are at a minimum. This is the perfect light for the topographical photographer and the cataloguer of information, and may be seen at its most effective in such photographs as Pontoise, Church of Saint-Maclou of 1902, or Door, Hotel de Cluny, 1898, made about four years earlier. The light in these images is factual and unemotional.

Later photographs frequently are marked by a subjective light that is more often concerned with reflecting mood than describing place. The deep, impenetrable shadows that dominate over half the composition in Saint-Cloud, Banks of the Seine, made in 1923, is an extreme example of this change in emphasis, but it is indicative nevertheless of Atget's greater awareness of the possibilities of light as a means of personal expression. A similar mystery is created in Saint-Cloud, 1919-1921 by the presence of one lone tree trunk glowing white in the distance of a darkening wood. The reverse of this drama, although an equally personal image, may be seen in the tree trunks with vines in Saint-Cloud of 1926 with its milky light.

Unlike the clinical light of earlier work that stresses literal and objective description, photographs made near the end of Atget's life show an increasing sensitivity to light as the subject. Light embraces with a gentle softness or grows from obscuring shadows to create images that are emotionally intimate and personally revealing. Nowhere in Atget's work is this change more in evidence than in his tree series. Trees are the subject of his most personal work. It was an enduring love that spanned his entire career. Trees are the subject of his last photographs. They are old friends, possibly even metaphors for his own life. Some he photographed over and over again through the years as they lost a limb, became more gnarled with age, more abused by life, and yet continued to survive with majesty and dignity.

Stage Perspective

It is difficult to imagine that Atget's years in the theatre did not leave some mark on his photographs. In fact, the theatre may be said to have provided the single most individual element in his style. Whenever the ground is apparent in Atget's images, there is a slant to the perspective, sometimes disturbing, but always uniquely his own trademark. The ground invariably slopes upward and into the distance in the manner of the exaggerated perspective of stage scenery. This effect is obvious in such photographs as Lampshade-Peddler, 1899-1900, Corner of Rues de Bondy and Bouchardon, 1909, Sceaux, Entrance to the Chateau, 1924, and Thiais, Church, 1925-1927; and may be seen in many others throughout his career. It was, of course, the optical system of his camera that allowed Atget to produce photographs with this special perspective. He used a lens consisting of a number of components that could be reduced in order to vary the focal length of the lens. A short focal length gives a wide angle of view. The ostensible reason for such a decision would have been to include as much as possible within the photograph, especially the tops of buildings. But at the same time, it was a technique that allowed Atget to heighten the spatial experience.

With a shorter focal length, the bellows often intruded into the image, thereby frequently darkening the corners of the photograph. Sometimes this effect is so pronounced as to create an arch at the top of the image suggestive of the proscenium arch of the theatre. Although these were the characteristics of his camera, there was room for choice. The fact that they appear so often in his work is an indication that not only was the framing of the subject in this manner acceptable, perhaps it was even desirable.


If light and space are key elements in defining Atget's style, his use of form is equally important. A sense of form appears to have been one of his gifts from the very early years, but it grew stronger and more certain with time. One of the most stunning examples of this is to be found in the handling of the view of conically shaped trees in Saint-Cloud, Park, 1921-1922. More subtle, but with an equally certain sense, are his many views of stairs, such as Saint-Cloud, 1904 and Grand Trianon, 1923-1924.

A comparison of three photographs, Bourg-la-Reine, Camille Demoulins' Farm, 1901, Gentilly, Old House, May-July 1915, and Charenton, Old Mill, also May-July 1915, shows the range of his approach to formal problems. Atget's manner of seeing the objects in the farm courtyard of the first example has rendered them as virtual abstract shapes subtly distributed across the surface of a flat plane. By contrast, the second example deals with a traditional deep space occupied by objects that are fully three-dimensional. On the face of it, Atget has presented us with nothing more than a record of farm buildings in this image, seen in a straightforward manner. And yet, with but a moment's viewing we become aware that Atget recognized and took delight in the underlying, whimsical structure of geometrical solids and shapes, all held in balance by the asymmetrical position and organic form of the wagon's load. The emphasis upon vertical columns of blocks that we see in the second image is carried to more radical lengths in Charenton, Old Mill. Here, Atget has seen the relationship between the vertical organization of geometrical solids and opposing horizontal rectangles as though it was the actual subject of the picture. Furthermore, he has used the negative space of blank areas in the sky and water to a degree that might have delighted Cezanne or even a Cubist painter.

In the fourteen years between the first and the last of these three examples may be seen the growth in complexity of Atget's vision from a relatively simple awareness of formal values to an extraordinarily sophisticated approach to solving pictorial problems. This maturity was already present in his photograph of the fireplace at Bagatelle, made in 1913, in which he places his camera in order to ring a series of changes on the rectangular shapes of the fireplace, mirror, and the open door. Just the right portion of asymmetry was always introduced by Atget, a concept which a recent study of his work interprets as the possible influence of the asymmetrical symmetry of Rococo composition. Given Atget's constant association with Rococo decorative art, the idea is intriguing.

The Accidental

The adventure of seeing in Atget's work, however, extends beyond its formal properties to other levels, the most mysterious of which is the appearance of the "accidental." This word is placed in quotation marks because the extent to which the photographer is the victim or the controlling agent is a moot point. The phenomenon of the apparently accidental incident or of the inclusion within the frame of an apparently insignificant object has been known to photographers since the beginning of the medium. Some have delighted in it, others have deplored it, and the more astute have exploited it. Oliver Wendell Holmes, American physician, essayist, and poet, recognized the power of the so-called unintentional in the photograph when, in 1859, he wrote, "The more evidently accidental their introduction, the more trivial they are in themselves, the more they take hold of the imagination." One critic has recently put a name to it - punctum: that which unexpectedly reaches out and pierces the viewer, thereby giving new meaning to the image.

Atget's work is rife with such experiences. Often they are discovered by the viewer only through prolonged looking. Frequently, the impact and meaning of their presence will rely entirely upon the viewer's own idiosyncratic response, as though Atget presents the clues to a mystery to which each must find his own solution.

That we are left to discover the woman in white, cut through by Atget's frame, at the left edge of Gentilly, Old House, or to discover the tiny figures leaning from the windows at the right of Pontoise, Church of Saint-Maclou, 1902, or to ponder the ghostly presences of moving figures in the same photograph, increases the human dimension of such images. Although the subject of 32 Rue Broca, 1912 is the front of a second-hand shop with its collection of inanimate, used objects, my attention is drawn to life, to the dog that moved twice and the parrot that shook its head but not its wings.

Artist for Our Time

Although Atget's work may be seen as a continuation of the concerns of the nineteenth-century photographer, he is, in fact, an artist for our time. The test each generation must apply to the art of preceding generations is whether it finds therein its own reflection. We have come to expect that the photographic image be both provocative and evocative. Atget did more than any other photographer to prepare the way for our acceptance of the complexity of layered meaning. On the face of it, Atget's photographs record the passing of a civilization. Behind the face lie other implications.

Often the central thought of an image by Atget consists in the confrontation of two opposing ideas: the grandiose and the humble, the elegant and the commonplace, the past and the present, the static and the moving, the light and the dark. The symbolism that this engenders is especially prevalent in the Paris work. A photograph of a doorway with an ornately carved coat of arms may be the ostensible reason for the existence of that photograph. But this tiny remnant of an artistocratic ancien regime, now surrounded by the rising tide of a bourgeois society and its petty commerce, reminds us that new life forever feeds on the decay of the old. Even the double image of a woman in the doorway adds its commentary to the flux of time.

The glancing nature of the vision with which he apprehends the world is an essential part of Atget's genius. In the guise of the accidental, it is reflective and questioning. So many of Atget's contemporaries, concerned with recording the Charlemagne fountain, would have photographed only the actual fountain set in its alcove. In Atget's photograph, however, the official and formal art of a past era competes with the apparently incidental inclusion of the popular and ephemeral art of contemporary posters. The great white dome of Sacre-Coeur in Rue du Chevalier-de-laBarre, March 1923, rising as a modern symbol of spirituality behind the shadowed street, cannot escape the question posed by the sign of "Blanchisserie, Fin, Gros" (Laundry, Retail, Wholesale) in the foreground. When two separate levels of existence are joined together each illuminates and enriches the other.

An awareness of the power that the intrusion of the small and apparently incidental occurrence into a photograph has in stirring the imagination of the viewer is not new. (We have already noted Oliver Wendell Holmes' early recognition of this phenomenon.) But, largely thanks to Atget, such occurrences have become an important element in the photographic vocabulary of our time. Whether it be through the existence of the ghostly figure of the gentleman standing on the sidewalk in Saint-Lazare Convent Apartments, 103 Rue du FaubourgSaint-Denis, 1909, or the enigmatic little shadow play in the stairwell below the sign "Libraire" in Courtyard, 28 Rue Bonaparte, 1910, or the tiny face peering from the gloom of an open window in Saint-Denis, Hotel du Grand Cerf, 1901, Atget has made us appreciate, more fully than any other photographer before him, the profound mystery of the medium.

Among his most witty and magical images are the series of shop windows begun around 1910, possibly as a commission for the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The purpose of the Cubist painter was to break down traditional one-point perspective by giving us a many-sided view of things. The Surrealist painter blurred the lines between the world of reality and the world of dreams by creating unexpected relationships and juxtapositions. All this was accomplished only through the artificial means of contrived images. Atget, however, knew that the world creates its own mysterious juxtapositions. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Boulevard de Strasbourg, 1912, with its motionless rows of corseted mannequins and a single moving shift. Whether or not the motion of the garment is accidental we shall never know. The fact remains that its existence is bizarre and its implications enormous.

Atget also made the startling discovery that the world creates its own montage of objects through a kind of "layering" just waiting for the photographer's lens. Such photographs as Avenue des Gobelins, 1925, pose questions about reality by shifting contexts and creating ambiguities through the layering of window reflections.

To assume that the principal value of Atget's work lies in its sociological or architectural documentation is to miss the true import of his art. Not every photograph Atget produced has grace or meaning. Often he may have photographed with little interest in the subject, only for the purpose of fulfilling a commission. Other photographs obviously derive from the personal satisfaction taken in the pleasure of visual experience or in the recognition of significant fact. Atget was an artist with a highly developed sense of pictorial logic. To experience an Atget photograph is to undergo an adventure in seeing. "It is the photographer's business to see," said H.P. Robinson in 1869. No one saw better than Atget.

The real consequence of his art, however, is in the cumulative effect of the entire body of work. It seems apt to compare Atget's oeuvre to a great Gothic cathedral. Rough and uneven when examined in detail, it is often enigmatic and at times disjointed in the manner of its construction. Like the cathedral, it contains many diverse parts: some shape its main structure, others provide networks of buttressing support, still others serve as fanciful ornamentation. Yet, like the cathedral, it rises heavenward as a whole: a hymn to the greatness and complexity of the human soul with its interweaving of grand aspirations and humble realities.

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