New York

Henri Cartier-Bresson and “Atget’s Gardens”

The International Center For Photography

There were a handful of Cartier-Bresson photographs in the Zabriskie show, but somehow in that context they didn’t seem very important. Their energies were neutralized by the environment of the show. To get a more helpful perspective on what was happening in the history of photography at the moment they were made, you had to go up to ICP. For before going upstairs to the Cartier-Bresson retrospective in the main gallery there, you could go to “Atget’s Gardens” in the gallery on the first floor.

The earliest Cartier-Bresson you were to find upstairs was made in 1929, the latest Atget in 1926 or early 1927. Most of the Atgets were taken in the suburbs of Paris when no one was around, and they therefore provided a sharp contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s work. One felt in these pictures by Atget the solitude of their making. It summed up the isolation in which so many 19th-century photographers worked, unaware of each other’s pictures and unappreciated in their own time. The Cartier-Bresson pictures to be seen upstairs were more typically made around busy, fashionable thoroughfares. They showed how he inserted himself into the thick of things right from the start. Cartier-Bresson’s has been the time when photography at last came into its own. It began to have a real history as part of our culture. Atget’s was the tail end of an earlier phase, when photography often had little more than a chronology. The difference to be seen at ICP between the milieus in which these two men chose to work was emblematic of the difference in historical significance of their careers.

About Cartier-Bresson I won’t try to say anything further here. But the Atget show might bear comment since it was such a special, narrow slice of his career. The by-product of a history of the French garden done by William Howard Adams, “Atget’s Gardens” truly was the Atget show needed to counterpoint “France Between the Wars.” One group of photographs in particular—those done at Sceaux–made the Atget exhibition remarkable. Between March and June, 1925, at the end of his own career and just at the beginning of the period covered by “France Between the Wars,” Atget made 66 photographs on the grounds of this ruined estate where the chateau of the Duchesse du Maine had once stood. It was the perfect subject for him. He had always been preoccupied with verges, with places where one landscape bordered on another—sidewalk on grass, city on country, civilization on wilderness. Even at Versailles he often sought remote corners of the grounds that were falling into disrepair, and another great series represented at ICP was St.-Cloud, where a villa once inhabited by Marie Antoinette had been burned down in 1871. In a sense, all the roads in Atget’s career, all the by-ways around Paris he had wandered for thirty years, led to the gardens at Sceaux.

The cumulative effect these garden photographs have is one of extraordinary poignancy. That is often a trite emotion, a frisson that quickly passes over into nostalgia or sentimentalism. But in the hands of certain artists, what begins by being poignant can sometimes end as a genuine wound in the heart. It can imply the remorseless perishability of the world with a grace so subtle that we do not at first realize the force of what is revealed. We discover that our feelings have been affected the way a duellist might discover the mark of a rapier thrust which took him unawares and at first caused no pain. The ending of a film by Yasujiro Ozu is a work of art of this kind, as is Atget’s imagery of the decaying, overgrown stairs on the terrace at St.-Cloud or outside the Pavilion de l’Aurore at Sceaux.

I think that to experience fully the power of these photographs, you have to approach them from the history not only of France, but of photography, and particularly Atget’s own work. Knowing Liebert’s photographs of St.-Cloud in Paris Incendie (1871), or Atget’s earlier work in Paris’ poorest suburbs, enhances his public gardens more than knowing which 17th-century nobleman built them. Nonetheless, the latter sort of knowledge was what Adams’ exhibition offered. When this kind of annotation is all Atget gets, my objection is that it turns his photographs into a “son et lumière.” But this is not to say that such historical background doesn’t also cast some light on Atget himself. The utter loneliness so strong in Atget’s pictures establishes a curious bond between his life and the histories of the landmarks he was photographing. These photographs are thronged with ghosts—with the mirage of the success that Atget never achieved in the theater or anywhere else on the public stage of French culture, and with fugitive traces of the success that other people did achieve only to have it erased again by history. Atget said all that he had to say on the subject in the photographs themselves, but it’s not out of order for Mr. Adams, in his commentary on those photographs, to speak for the other ghosts who are present.

Actually, Adams gets someone even more authoritative than he to speak—Jacqueline Onassis. In her brief introduction to the catalogue for “Atget’s Gardens” she is quite eloquent, especially about life as it was originally lived at Sceaux, Versailles and St.-Cloud. Probably no other woman in our century has been so well prepared to imagine what it would have been like to be Marie Antoinette. In one respect, though, I’m surprised that Ms. Onassis allowed her name to appear in this book.

The one unwelcome contrast between the Atget and Cartier-Bresson exhibitions was that while the book accompanying the latter is superb, that for the former has been very poorly done. Although the “special edition” of the Cartier-Bresson book which the New York Graphic Society produced for the ICP show gives the impression of being a catalogue, the exhibition was really occasioned by publication of the book, not the other way around. If anything, the photographs look better in the book than they did in the show itself, for Cartier-Bresson has always shot for publication and the prints reveal flaws—in sharpness, for instance—which quality reproduction hides. In doing the Atget book, instead of trying to reproduce the velvet cocoa of Atget’s albumen prints toned with gold chloride, Dolphin/Doubleday has given us beige borders on every page. Both covers of the two paperback copies of the book that have come into my hands came off as soon as the book was opened, and in one copy there were streaked pages suggesting little quality control. As I said, I’m surprised to see Ms. Onassis’ name on the book. I thought she only travelled first class.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.