It has taken me a long time to really appreciate Eugène Atget. Cartier-Bresson is easy ‘to get’. So is Frank, Friedlander, Kertész, Ray-Jones, Parr, Brandt, Stieglitz even. In a way, they are all story-tellers. But Atget?

Perhaps it’s a function of age?

John Szarkowski once said: ‘the photographer learns in two way: first, from a worker’s intimate understanding of his tools and materials … and second he learns from other photographs, which present themselves in an unending stream’ 1.

But what to learn from Atget?

When I leaf through my books of his photographs, I shudder at some of the technical imperfections, but less so after realising that he was working with the imperfect tools of his time. What comes through strongly from some his photographs, particularly the statutes that overlook things, is a certain feeling of longing. His pictures are grasped through a process of inference. Statues that look into the distance, often up avenues or across water suggest some vigil.

Eugène Atget; Versailles: Venus sortant du bain. (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, Paris).
Eugène Atget, Parc des Sceaux

His people-less streets of Paris and environs, (which we will never see again), his pictures of statues locked into an everlasting gaze, his perfectly still waters … the lack of shadow detail … the posturing of the camera into the sun …

Eugène Atget; Versailles, Grand Trianon ( The National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa)

One could go on. I guess you either get it or you don’t. For me it took time.

But I strongly get it.

  1. The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski; Museum of Modern Art, 1966

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