Eugene Atget was a 19th-century photographer par excellence about whose life and work people have barely any idea. He photographed the city of Paris for nearly thirty years and captured some of the most beautiful aspects of it. He left for his heavenly abode leaving a legacy of about 10,000 prints and 2000 eight by ten inches glass plates; the count excludes the plates that were found in the Palais Royale archives.
Life of Eugene Atget
Atget was born an orphan in the year 1856 in the city of Bordeaux. He grew up under the care of his uncle and at a very early age, he became a cabin boy who would often ship the sea. His experiences in the sea enriched his life with many exciting memories that he was to share with friends, as an adult. His mind was sharpened and he knew much about the world from his childhood days.
Eugene Atget turned to theatre and acting early on, but in most cases, he could get the role of only villains because of his physical appearance. He moved from the French provincial cities to the suburbs of Paris to pursue his career as an actor. Since he did not have much liking towards acting, g he tried his hand at painting which he liked doing. Some of his paintings and brushworks were even found in his studio.
The actor and artists then turned to art photography, as it allowed him to pursue his interest in capturing the different artistic and picturesque elements of Paris. He had finally found something that he felt so passionate about and thus, began his journey towards becoming one of the greatest but underrated photographers of his times. This labor of love and longing for all that is aesthetic lasted for thirty years.
It is important to clear the meaning of “art photographer”. Atget was never “arty” in the way that most people perceive the word. He had eyes that were sensitive and attentive to the beautiful details of the city and this sensitivity was mature enough. Both the heart and the brain backed this powerful element that helped him achieve so many artistic captures. Another characteristic that Atget was hailed for was selectivity that enriched his photographs.
With his immense exposure to the world during his days in drama, his travels and his intense ability to observe, he captured the photographs of houses, buildings, sites, chateau, and the streets of Paris. Even though initially photography was just as relentlessly unrewarding as acting, Atget persevered and over time attained success. He was encouraged by a particular incident when Luc-Olivier-Merson paid fifteen francs for a print. With the help of other popular personalities of his times who recognized his work, Atget began to earn various accolades gradually.
However, Atget was not appreciated by the public, as he began to produce art that portrayed him as a spy or lunatic in front of the people. Soon after he grew old and stopped making any more artworks. He died a tragic death in 1927 without gaining adequate respect and recognition that his great photographic works deserved.
Paris was a city of hope and aspiration at the time where many painters, philosophers, composers, would-be poets worked relentlessly to achieve name and fame. The city and its thousands of struggling individuals, its streets, houses, etc became the ultimate subject for Atget’s work. Here was a city that was exclusively associated with art, beautiful cafes, gray plane trees and so on.
Paris was a city of contrast and contradictions for this photographer and it was hardly a dream as most people would describe it. Atget observed and captured the reality of Paris which was full of eroded mansions, humble dwellings, unique architecture, carousels, colorful food, the luxurious design of the Les Halles; coupled with the elegance and sophisticated nature of Versailles, the poverty underlying areas outside palaces, outmoded forms of transportation, and so many other realities that defined Paris.
Atget made extremely humble but bold attempts of capturing all these realities into photographs that gave a sense of fixed reality to Paris. He never focussed too much on the technique but more so on the content of these photographs. He also believed that the trick lay in noticing and bringing into peoples’ notice the little details that we tend to miss in day-to-day life. . Atget had access to a limited array of equipment but he managed well with it and expressed the life around him in the most wonderful way possible.
We can gather much understanding of Eugene Atget’s method of work and information about the equipment used from his photographs. He did much of his work with a simple and traditional 18 x 24 cm view camera. You might notice in his photographs that the corners are cut off. The reason for this is that the lens did not allow full coverage of the frame. He did not possess a wide-angle lens at that time. Details like the focal length of his lens are not known, but experts have guessed it to be somewhere between eleven to twelve inches.
He was known for using glass plates and never used an exposure meter for those photographs. He took the help of a simple coefficient table with mathematical calculations, but in all likelihood, he judged exposure based on his own experience and knowledge about the subject, the lighting conditions, and the kind of plate emulsion. Atget could never make use of filters because the emulsions back then were not–color sensitive. He never even used artificial light and always relied on natural light. A simple bulb shutter was the only kind of shutter he used.
If the conditions allowed , Atget would boil down to a small aperture, and it was only when he photographed people that he focussed properly by opening up the diaphragm. It is mere speculation that his lens must have been no faster than 1/11, at the most. Most of the photographs were taken during summer, to make use of the actinic rays of the sun. It t is evident from the pictures that, he must have asked his subjects to “hold still for a moment”, before clicking them.
Atget relied on natural resources like sunlight to make up for the equipment he lacked such as fast lenses and fast emulsions. He would wake up early at dawn to utilize most of the daytime light and this is what solved most of his photographic problems.
His photographs are proof enough that photography is more than just the camera and if one is passionate enough about his subjects, he will be able to capture the most extraordinary shots with the most basic equipment. Atget (not his camera) was the master of how his photographs turned out. He worked hard and invested a great deal physically, as he carried around heavy glass plates. His intense awareness of the reality around him, made him a photographer. The camera was simply a medium of expression.
Eugene Atget lived a simple yet uncompromising life and his disciplined personality reflected in his work to create some beautiful pieces of art.