March 07, 2012

A Step Back in Time - The Paris of Eugène Atget

Although the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) considered himself simply a man who took pictures, his stature in the spectrum of early 20th Century art is significantly more important.  Working with a large format wooden bellows camera on a tripod, he studiously photographed the everyday scenes of Paris and its environs and sold these pictures as documentation for artists, publishers, architects and interior designers to use as reference and inspiration in their own work.

In the 1920s these photos caught the attention of avant-garde painters Man Ray, Matisse and Picasso who saw in them the essence of Surrealism and Atget became recognized as an artist rather than a camera person.

Not that this new status changed him or the kinds of photographs he took but after his death the American photographer Berenice Abbott, a long time champion of his work, acquired much of his archive which she ultimately sold to New York's Museum of Modern Art.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Eugène Atget is now firmly ensconced on the pedestal "Master of Photography".  His photographs are sought after by collectors, bring high prices at auctions, and have been the subject of major museum exhibitions including one on view right now at MoMA.

"Eugène Atget:  Documents pour artistes" is a nod to the photographer's stated mission as he lugged his camera to capture the perfect images of shop windows, street people, statues and staircases in an effort to record the real Paris.  But far from merely recording people, places and things, these photographs captured the essence of the city.  Atget's mastery of composition and the long exposure give these pictures an ethereal, almost dreamlike, quality.

The exhibition is organized according to theme -  Surrogates and the Surreal comprising shop windows, street fairs and mannequins, the sights of the Fifth Arrondisement near the Pantheon, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Parc de Sceaux, People of Paris including prostitutes, vendors, rag pickers and gypsies, and finally Courtyards with their unique orientation between interior and exterior or private and public spaces.  There are over 100 photographs, most of them vintage, and most superb examples of Atget's unique style.  I was sorry not to see any works from his Versailles series but overall the show was very well curated and very interesting - especially to a Francophile like me!  Looking at these sepia toned photos made me think of a Paris of long ago but even though there may no longer be horse drawn carriages or organ grinders in the streets many sights have remained very much the same.

This tribute to the genius of Eugène Atget was the perfect send off as I leave for Paris this weekend.  I am looking forward to visiting my favorite places from print dealers to restaurants as well as an overnight jaunt to attend the opening of the 25th anniversary of TEFAF in Maastricht, Holland.  I hope you'll check back to see what's going on in Gaie Paris and I certainly hope you have a chance to see this marvelous photography show "Documents pour artistes" that will be on view at MoMA until April 9.  A très bientôt!

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