PRINT Summer 1985


The Work of Atget

The Work of Atget.

By John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg, New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1981–85 (distributed by the New York Graphic Society). Volume 1, Old France: 204 black and white photographs, 180 pp.; Volume 2, The Art of Old Paris: 212 black and white photographs, 192 pp.; Volume 3, The Ancien Regime: 167 black and white photographs, 185 pp.; Volume 4, Modern Times: 205 black and white photographs, 186 pages.

Paralleling and complementing the Museum of Modern Art’s four-exhibition survey of the work of Eugène Atget, shown over the past three years, has been one of the most remarkable publishing projects in the recent history of photography: the issuing of four large volumes on Atget’s work, including (all told) nearly 500 plates and over 300 small reference illustrations. With the completion of this massive dual undertaking Atget, the legendary photographer of Paris who died in obscurity in 1927, has received by far the fullest recognition ever given him.

Atget and his work have long served as a paradigm of the problems of photographic criticism. Until recently only the barest details were known of his life: that he was a failed actor and would-be painter, and for thirty years had photographed street scenes, architecture, landscapes, and other subjects in and around Paris, selling his work for the most part to various government libraries and to artists, as “documents.” The essays by John Szarkowski, director of the photography department at MoMA, and Maria Morris Hambourg, a young art historian who has carried out ground-breaking research on Atget, offer the most exhaustive presentation to date of the photographer’s life and his own understanding of his work. Hambourg’s biographical essay, in the second volume, and her analysis of the structure of his photographic projects, in the third, along with the notes on the plates thoughout the series, effectively reclaim Atget from the mists of legend.

But it is in his introduction to the first volume that Szarkowski provides both a provocative analysis of Atget’s work and a far-reaching statement about the nature of photography. In that essay he describes Atget’s aim as being “the creation of a body of photographs that would describe the authentic character of French culture.” To achieve this goal, he argues, Atget “was willing to accept the results of his own best efforts, even when they did not rise above the level of simple records.” It is because of this that only “perhaps 20 percent of Atget’s work attains the . . . formal surprise or original grace by which we identify a successful work of modern art.” This argument, disarming in its directness, is radical in its simple recognition that photography serves many purposes besides those of art. In effect Szarkowski proposes an esthetic of functionality for photography, one that overlaps but doesn’t coincide with a formal esthetic. Most photographs are used for their qualitites as descriptive records-as ordered nets of visual information-and their success is measured by how well (or poorly) they fulfill that purpose. In considering Atget’s work in this light Szarkowski not only reflects the real worth of the photographs, but also claims for photography the criterion of value that has been at the heart of the revolutions of Modernism, but which has continually been suppressed in normalizing backlashes of “style” and “art.” In an essay in the final volume Szarkowski traces critical assessment of Atget’s work, and his influence on such photographers as Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Lee Friedlander.

In the end there will never be enough information to satisfy our curiosity about Atget’s life, and the genesis of his photographs. But his work offers its own testimony about the creative achievement that is possible when formal intelligence is combined with a deep understanding, acquired through years of conscientious application, of the terms of photographic depiction.

Charles Hagen