PRINT November 1972

Atget’s Trees

A MAN NAMED JEAN Eugène Auguste Atget is born in Bordeaux in 1856. Accounts have it that he was soon orphaned and worked during his early years on ships—in what capacity is not known. We hardly gain a clearer picture of the next stage of his life, that of a traveling actor in what were then called “third roles,” an itinerant, obscure, mediocre form of existence that occupied him well into his forties. By this time, he seems to be living near Paris, to be making some friends among theatrical folk, and to be advancing nowhere in a profession to which neither his gaunt looks nor his gifts, what ever they might be, are suited. It was said by those few who knew him later that he subsisted exclusively on bread, water, and sugar, a diet no one could persuade him to enlarge, though it progressively undermined his health. Some time during the last decade of the century he forms a quiet, enduring liaison with a woman many years his senior. About then, too, he gives up acting, buys canvas and brushes, and con siders for a while that art may be the calling which he had so far been searching in vain.

In 1926, a young American photographer, Berenice Abbott, chances upon a few photographs of Paris whose haunting desolation and sad light greatly excite her curiosity. She learns they are the work of an old widower, Atget, who has a small, walk-up studio nearby. She seeks him out, is received with a shy courtesy, and buys as many of his prints as her tiny budget allows. One day, not long after, she goes to his flat only to learn that he has died and that an enormous quantity of his glass plates have been purchased very cheaply by a national documentary archive. She will now devote much of her life to collecting and presenting his work, and to bringing his name to that high place it enjoys to day in the history of photography.

For over thirty years the streets of Paris know Atget, “a bent silhouette always dressed in an immense threadbare coat.” Some neighbors, it is reported, think him a spy, although with his heavy, out-of-date view camera, awkward tripod, and bulky glass plates, he could only be a very conspicuous one, with no crowd in which to mingle on the empty thoroughfares of dawn. But his profession is as it looks, and he rises so often before others in order to avoid the blur of traffic—and also to record the spectacle of a city that seems, as he develops it, to be receding into time and moldering with its age. The long barrel on his lens sometimes intercedes vaguely like an arch over his exposures and gives to his images their look of vignettes from the past. The short focal length of the camera eye occasionally bends his perspectives, too, and bestows on them the space of a dream. In the darkroom Atget uses gold chloride to tone his prints—subtly varying from purple sepia to yellow brown—so that they appear, though fresh in detail, faded in effect. It is as if he has a premonition of how ancient they will look after he is gone, how lost and forgotten will be the plethora of sights so silent before him they may hear the click of his shutter. He seems conscious above all of living in an age long before, or perhaps of anticipating one way after, his own. The life that must have streamed around him and the upheavals that modernized the city are only glancingly caught in his vacant present. The haberdashery goods that he shows behind their vitrines, and the small tradespeople that pose for him with their equipment, are, all of them, so many specimens drawing his attention because they are good examples of their kind. This accent on the typical is the mark of a documentary program, as is also the leveled, encyclopedic range of subject, and the objective avoidance of circumstances distended by movement. Working before the First World War, Atget betrays no knowledge even of the Impressionists; ten years after it, his work appears in a Surrealist periodical.

This man also takes walks in the country, and he has for landscape that same will to collect and classify its motifs as he demonstrates in the city. It is harder, though, to imagine him trudging about the parks of St. Cloud or Sceaux with as much a sense of fond displacement as in Paris. The cobbled streets display their human history, are evidently worn down with it, but the foliage renews itself in monotonous cycles that are inevitable, lovely, and nondescript. The woods do not have a style from which he can feel removed. A forest has no location worth specifying, no texture that tells of anything but itself. Atget, though curious, is no naturalist, and while concerned with mood, he is not selfconscious. To have captured the image of one of these trees is, for him, to have crystallized the type for its species.

As subjects, they are indeed truer to their type than to people or their places, but they reveal far more intricate and accidental variations of surface and structure. This structure lacks orientation—a front, back, or side; any view of it may be characteristic but none is exclusively typical. At first it may appear as if Atget is studying single trees to obtain an elusive imprint of their anatomy. He shoots some of them more than once from the same angle, though at different times of the day, and even in different seasons. But there is no program here, unless it be a comparison of the way altering light etches, flattens, or sculpts the thick, gnarled, knobby trunks of beeches. It is too exaggerated to speak of these recordings as dramatic, and too unresponsive to think of them as transcriptions. In the bowers and arbors, along the allées and ponds of the Ile de la Cité, the lens revisits certain sites and confuses them mildly, the beauties of their masses being exchangeable, at sea almost, like the weights discerned in a body of water. Often, too, he closes in on a motif, an oak or an apple tree, cropping its spread and showing how the organism “works,” its root system, its branch and bough structure, the lesser incidents of embellishing twigs. These grip the soil or twist in the air, designing their own metaphors of natural energy. But just as surely, he may find in them some zigzag as abstract as the crossings of a log fence, and he follows the strange things they do. Far to the left in one of his prints, the sturdy torso of a tree emits a long, horizontal limb that goes languorously to the right and then lifts up, aiming unerringly for the corner. Atget’s cherry trees are all thumbs, knuckles, joints, fingers; his willows shake their wet hair. But these personifications are come upon so naturally as never to seem forced. More emotive are those dark bosky avenues which nestle a white marble herm or a river god, startling because of its excessive loneliness. And far from these esplanades, deeper into the woods, we encounter hazier profiles, too, that almost ache with their vulnerable grace. It is the region where he seems most at home, for it is bereft of human presence, yet alive with the slow turnings of growth. The passage of time gives them an indifferent sway, and an unaccountable fullness recalling Georges Franju’s remark that a “shot should have content the way a glass does.” looking at these leafless traceries and hidelike barks, one senses in them the accumulated intuitions of the sailor, the actor, the would-be painter, and, above all, the patient gaze of that later man who understands that he is a recluse, finds his life work, and brings forth with the aid of chemicals a forgotten wealth of lights and shadows.

Max Kozloff