New York

Eugene Atget

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Writing about photography is not like writing about painting. It isn’t that in photography the medium is more important than in painting, but that the kind of first-hand knowledge of it that only a practitioner can have is more important. The reason for this is that the state of the art is not only changing but improving, since in this case the art is partly—largely—a technology. One thing it is impossible to judge without a thorough knowledge of technique is whether a given photographer is getting the most out of his medium—not, is he exploiting all the possibilities it has to offer, since every personality is limited and none would want to exploit all the possibilities, but is he exploiting all those which might be useful to him? On the other hand, it could well be that the stage of their technical development is holding him back; I think that this might have been a serious problem for Atget, but as I said I can’t really judge, and actually the question might be nonsense, if it is true that the extent to which an artist is able to fuse his sensibility with the stylistic possibilities of his time is one measure of his quality!

At any rate, one can compare, say, Rubens and Cézanne as one cannot compare Talbot and Weston, and in the case of Atget this fact is complicated by another: he happens to have had very little competition. It was a time when the really immense contributions of the previous decades were being digested piecemeal, and this assimilation was being worked out largely in the great mass of picture postcards that make up the real history of photography at about the turn of the century. Aside from these, who are Atget’s contemporaries? Demachy and Puyo, Primoli and Lartigue! It is certainly an odd-seeming bunch, but I wonder if they do not make up a more coherent ensemble than would appear: if one considers Primoli as a kind of intermediary one can move easily from Lartigue—a whimsical Degas for whom every perception is by candid camera and every event a modish fait-divers—to the “artistic photography” of the others, which is really the equivalent of the more pre-Raphaelite tendencies in art nouveau, atemporal and sublime, if that is not putting it too succinctly.

But whether they cohere or not, simply to mention these names is to see how little Atget had in common with those about him. In the way of still photographers one thinks of artists who came much later—sometimes Cartier-Bresson, sometimes Weston, and so on, all the successors being much more limited in their range than was Atget. Of artists close to his time, on the other hand, one thinks rather of Gance and Vigo, perhaps the early Jean Renoir, which is to say of people whose work is where the action really was in photography. It is astounding that a still photographer could teach motion picture photographers so much, and the fact is a confirmation of the great triumph of Atget’s work; even today Resnais and Bertolucci are always thinking of Atget, and so is Godard, at least when he is not working in montage: Band of Outsiders is a kind of technical homage to Atget.

What are Atget’s limitations? It is interesting that the two principal ones would seem to involve attempts by him to keep clear of the dominant artistic currents of his time. For one thing, fantasy is not his strong point. It must have been a continuous effort for him to hold his work apart from fin-de-siècle estheticism, and this would have meant not just sublimation or allegory or “symbolism” but images that mean more than what they are seen to be. One finds images of this sort in Atget, but they are a kind of relaxation, less rigorous than he is usually, as in some of his photos of shop windows (the doll store or the taxidermist’s shop) or in the zany rococo of the Austrian Embassy-. But at least once it led to a photo that is among his finest statements, a herm in the park of the Trianon which is transfigured by a ray of sunlight coming through the leaves. These may be the “antique drums” of Debussy and Roussel, but Atget’s work at the Trianon and at St.-Cloud is very different from his photo of the taxidermist’s window: the subject is actually less recherché and far more distilled, and the means employed lay far more stress on the sensory qualities of the motif: the sense of the photo does not exceed the sensation. One can call it a kind of realism.

But if Atget reacted against the esthetic movement, he also reacted against Degas and, in fact, against the whole of what can be considered (and considered itself) as the photographic esthetic. There cannot be another photographer of that period who resorts so seldom to the device of interrupting an object at the frame, or of tilting horizontal planes forward, who is less interested in instantaneity, whether casual or studied, so insensitive to the style of the passing spectacle. “Je regardai loin derrière moi, dans les années profondes,” could have been Atget’s principle as it was Baudelaire’s; whether in Paris or at Versailles, his was an exploration back deep into time, and while his Paris was not by any means that of Baudelaire or Meryon he viewed the Paris of his day from the same bias: he sought in it echoes of the past. So it is appropriate that the photographer he most resembles is Négre, an artist he had to look back at and whose style does in fact antedate the revision in pictorial procedures that was affected principally by Degas. In this way, Atget’s “realism” was reinforced, although I think the result may have been accidental; for, with Degas (and Manet) repudiated, what remained was Barbizon and the Impressionist followers of Barbizon: I think that Atget’s photos of barges and the banks of the Seine are, with some of Seurat’s versions of the same motifs, the climax of that tradition. But the incredible thing is that “realism” in this sense—really an avoidance of chic—is only one of the strings on Atget’s bow.

Jerrold Lanes