#131: The Accidental Genius of Eugène Atget

Flat Iron Building, Toronto, 2009

Simply put, Eugène Atget is the most unlikely breed of genius: an accidental one.

The French orphan who worked as a sailor, cabin boy and theatrical bit-player before picking up a camera, proves a point that I’ve always believed about photography: that shots of urban spaces and buildings without people in them can be just as intriguing as those depicting human activity.

Atget is generally considered a practitioner of straight photography described by Group f/64 as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.” In most of his photos there are no tricks or techniques at play other than a soft sepia touch and a very long exposure time that would sometimes erase any passersby from an image.

Atget took up photography as a profession in his 40’s. Many of his photos were actually taken to assist other artists. Painters in Montparnasse often used his photos as the subjects of their paintings. As well, he took photos of the city for various city and cultural institutions.

A Corner, Rue de Seine, May 1924 by Eugène Atget

While he wasn’t truly appreciated while he was alive, Atget’s work stands as a chronicle of a side of Paris that rarely made it into print. As the book 50 Photographers You Should Know, from Prestel Publishing, noted, “It was things and places – houses, streets, plants that intrigued him, and his pictures rarely show human life directly….Atget’s Paris is a metropolis of sun-drenched courtyards and lanes, old bridges, and barges….The Paris of grand boulevards was not Atget’s Paris.” It’s cliché to say that photos can bring their subjects to life, but this momentous body of work really does capture a time and place in history – complete with people, professions and cityscapes – in a way that may not exist without him. Atget’s work, including the preciseness of his shots and the mood each image emotes are all brilliant in their simplicity.

For me, a photographer still honing his craft, Atget reinforced my belief that shots of buildings, streets, doors, windows and alleys can be as captivating to the eye as any other image. As I mentioned in my profile of Henri Cartier-Bresson, my favourite style of photography, and the one I employ most often, is street photography. Like Cartier-Bresson and Atget, I believe in shooting the scene as it is without any interference from the photographer or any other outside elements (a trait ingrained in me while trained as a photojournalist). I often enjoy wandering through Toronto neighbourhoods not usually shown in tourism ads and television shows and shooting photos of the streets and architecture as a means of capturing the spirit of the area. In his photos Atget allows the buildings and streets he shoots speak for themselves, and the result is a body of work that practically oozes the history of his time period from each print.

Atget wore many hats in his life. He was a husband, a working man, an artist, a socially-conscious citizen and, in a way, a historian. They say the past is gone, but works like the photos Atget left behind ensure that the spirit of history lives on in the art of those who embrace it.

For a full biography of Eugène Atget, click here. For a collection of his work, click here.

For a portfolio of some of my photos from around Toronto, click here.

This post appears as part of the FOCUS 365 photo blog component of Bastard Type

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One thought on “#131: The Accidental Genius of Eugène Atget

  1. Pingback: Focus 365 — Not a Sunset, but a Sunrise « Bastard Type

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