Art, Politics & Society

The Mystery of Eugène Atget


We all know that photography had proven to be yet another productive medium in contemporary art. It started as a mirror of our reality and over the years, people have gained a more profound understanding of its true capacity. The establishment of that process was pushed forward by some artists, who saw the potential of photography at the dawn of its development.


Today we are going to get acquainted with, as some experts say, “Mozart of Photography”. His mysterious life and oeuvre have been inspiring and intriguing people for decades. He left us thousands of photos with no explanation whatsoever and was not well known during his lifetime.

Eugène Atget is a French photographer who was born in 1857 and died in 1927. And that could be all information we knew, if not for Man Ray, a young Surrealist, who lived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, and, consequently, on the same street as Atget. He made a huge discovery and showed Atget’s photographs to the world. We will come back to this fascinating story a little bit later, but for now let’s see why Eugène Atget is considered one of the greatest masters of photography.


Atget spoke a little of his works and gave no interpretations of them. He even said to Man Ray to not mention his name when he had put Atget’s photo on the cover of Surrealist magazine La Révolution surréaliste. “These are simply documents I make,” he said. And Atget kept making those documents for 30 years, creating the chronicles of old Paris.


He had made over 10,000 photos of Paris, taking interest in the oldest parts of the city, which soon would be demolished or rebuilt. The streets on Atget’s photographs look antique; he was fond of the various architectural details of the city such as creative carvings on the wooden doors, ornaments and decorations on the building’s walls, gothic door-knobs, and other vivid details of Parisian avenues and boulevards exterior. He often captured arcs that lead to small inner courtyards, decorated shopfronts with a variety of goods; infrequently he took pictures of some people on the streets.

All of these details gave us a glimpse of the city that was about to disappear. Technical progress, urbanization, building boom were yet to come, but Atget felt the presentiment of the upcoming changes and catastrophes of the 20th century, and we feel it too in the mystic atmosphere of silent Paris in his photos. His photographs provided a view of the different world, a different Paris; real, and almost dreamlike-version of the city. The city is separated from its inhabitants and the impression that it gives to the viewers is similar to Surrealist photography. It is yet another reality that alienates humans.

That’s one of the reasons why Surrealists were fascinated with Atget’s work. His evocative city scenes were filled with light and captured numerous unique moments which were exceptional not only from the historical point of view, but due to an artistic vision that Atget had developed throughout the years. Being one of the pioneers of the street and urban photography, he combined the two most common approaches to the photography of that time: simply depicting the environment and creative self-expression.

“He practised photography not to show what he knew and felt, but to discover what he might know and feel,” said John Szarkowski, a famous art historian. Atget had developed a unique ‘eye’ that provides a whole new level of recognition of photography as an artistic tool that can be used for the world exploration. His heritage had influenced not only the Surrealists but the whole perception of the photography, particularly in documentary. Eugène Atget created a series of visually informative documents that launched a creative pursuit of new forms and optics, revealing a mysterious side of the city life that enchants even the most blasé audience of modern times.

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