Street Photography – Eugene Atget

This whole blog is about the overlap between art and life: street photography is one obvious place to find both interacting.

As you visit a town or city over the years, you notice buildings changing use – somewhere that used to be a coffee shop is now a pizza place, what was a cardshop is now a cafe…. but how intriguing to capture the changing uses of buildings as they reflect changes in society.  Eugene Atget did this for Paris at the turn of the twentieth century and for two decades.

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(Intriguing street photograph of Atget – Les Avenue de Gobelins in Daily Muse)

There is a great introduction to his work, lavishly illustrated over at the website, The Daily Muse   http://elusivemu.se/eugene-atget/

The picture above is my personal favourite from the website, because it is intriguing what is artificially and statically arranged inside the window and the outside real life, reflected into it.

Eugene’s photography begins as the city of Paris moves into the 1900s, through to his death in 1927.  He works quietly, not exhibiting his photos, but selling them to artists and museums. He only discovered photography aged 41, after unsuccessfully trying to work as an actor and painter.  I wonder if this is why his work has a quiet authority – a man who has reached maturity, has seen a wide variety of life (as a youth he worked on sailing ships), who understands staging and human posture (via acting) as communication and the way to frame and compose a picture (via painting).

His work only becomes well known because the more famous Man Ray and Berenice Abbot champion his work, Berenice editing many books of his photographs.  She herself is so inspired by his work, that she takes on the photographing of New York as it changes, working on this project from 1929 – 1939.

When Eugene Atget dies, those who look at his work are mystified by reference numbers on the backs of his photographs.  It was only after many mystical theories as to their meaning were examined – was it found that he had simply used the library classification system.  (presumably Dewey Decimal – the numbers written on the spine of a book to classify where they should be shelved).  As a confirmed fan of libraries myself, this only makes me like Eugene more.

(Thank you to the book “Photography a crash course” by Dave Yorath, which introduced me to Atget’s work and the information above).

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