This presentation of 26 vintage prints by the celebrated French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) is drawn from the ICP permanent collection. Surrealists such as Man Ray were fascinated by Atget's images of dreamlike urban spaces. As this exhibition reveals, such photographs were part of a much larger body of work that reflected Atget's systematic documentation of the historic streets, buildings, and artifacts of Old Paris.
After spending his youth as a sailor and amateur actor, Atget took up photography in the late 1880s as a way to make a living. Though never formally trained, he honed his skills by photographing subjects on demand for local artists who needed photographic models. Following the tradition of earlier French photographers like Charles Marville and Henri Le Secq, he then turned his focus to his surroundings, becoming interested in urban and architectural history. By the late 1890s, he was regularly photographing what remained of Old Paris after the city’s dramatic modernization under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the 1860s, paying special attention to those districts threatened by imminent demolition. He created an astonishing inventory of the city’s houses, churches, storefronts, parks, courtyards, doors, stairways, and mantelpieces, employing a systematic vision that would today be called “typological.”
Considering himself a photographic illustrator, and not an artist, Atget earned his living by selling these “documents for artists” to a diverse group of painters, architects, interior designers, publishing houses, libraries, and archives. Among his regular clients were public institutions such as the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Musée Carnavalet, the École des Beaux-Arts, and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Atget, Archivist of Paris provides a concise introduction to this photographer’s subjects and working method. The works selected from ICP’s permanent collection for the exhibition demonstrate Atget’s ability to fashion compelling images from seemingly mundane objects. Encompassing workmanlike documentation while simultaneously capturing a hauntingly poetic vision of a city in transition, they are a testament to Atget’s devotion to his chosen subject.
This exhibition was organized by ICP Curator Christopher Phillips.