Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Eugène Atget (1857–1927)

Although he studied drama in Paris in the mid-1870s and was an itinerant actor for some years thereafter, Eugène Atget’s theatrical sensibility found its best outlet in a more deliberate, contemplative, and purely visual art form. In the late 1880s, he began photographing whatever artists needed as models for their work, and by 1898 he had established a practice in Paris. He became obsessed with making what he modestly called “documents” of the city and its environs, and compiling a visual compendium of the architecture, landscape, and artifacts that distinguish French culture and its history. Except for a brief attempt to capture life in the streets early in his career, Atget rarely photographed people, preferring the streets themselves as well as the gardens, courtyards, and other areas that constituted the cultural stage.

By the end of his life, Atget had amassed an archive of over 8,000 negatives, which he organized into such categories as Parisian Interiors, Vehicles in Paris, and Petits Métiers (trades and professions). While his principle clientele would change, Atget continued to frequent artists’ ateliers and cafés until the end of his life, selling his pictures to those most able to see their intrinsic worth.

In the 1920s, Atget was heralded by Man Ray and the Surrealists for his photographs of window displays that melded reflections of the street with artifacts for sale, and for his pictures of places that seemed like so many theatrical stages pregnant with imminent action. His keen observations of the moments when today’s traffic intersects society’s immemorial concerns demonstrated far beyond Surrealist circles how photography could succinctly and evocatively describe cultural values as pervasive and almost as invisible as air.