Paris In Winter's Greys

photo: rue clery

Rue Clery, Saturday, 1. January 2000.

Photography and Eugène Atget

Paris:- Friday, 14. January 2000:- "An essential piece of equipment for all photographers is a sturdy tripod," says a book entitled 'Professional Photography.' In Paris, a more important 'piece of equipment' are legs. A tripod alone will take a photographer nowhere.

We have also a 'chicken and egg' proposition. Was photography invented in Paris by chance, or was Paris invented in order to produce photography?

On Monday, 1. July 1822, a sort of huge slide show - with sound! - was opened at the Diorama in the Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple. This brought its inventor, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, immediate glory.

After seeing the Diorama's 'Le Guide de l'Etranger à Paris' spectacle five years later, Nicéphore Niepce was prompted to write that it was the greatest impression he had received in Paris.

Daguerre had used a 'camera obscura' to create huge paintings quickly. It was like a projector that worked backwards, projecting the outside scene inside - where it could be traced. The 'camera obscura' - literally, 'dark room' - was also used by Italian painters such as Caneletto, in the previous century.

Niepce had gone further than Daguerre, having fixed images on pewter plates by 1826. At first antagonists, Niepce and Daguerre worked together until Niepce's death in 1833. Daguerre refined the process further, using plates coated with silver.

Arago, director of the Observatory, talked the government into buying the process and making it public, which it did on 11. August 1839. The next day, Parisians besieged optical and chemist's shops - everybody wanted to make their own 'daguerréotypes.'

These images, dating to 1840, were fragile and because of the long exposure times, captured no people. Allphoto: quai conti, pont neuf the same, Parisians were the first to photograph Paris - the first to photograph anywhere - something to remember when they view the hordes of visitors who have taken it up.

And there was plenty of subjects. Water-carriers were still circulating as the first gas street lamps were installed. The 'grands boulevards' were leveled, the Arc du Triomphe was raised as was the Obelisk and the first train stations were built.

Photography was discussed, sometimes heatedly, in the salons of the time. Some painters were worried; some were envious of the photograph's precision. One who took part, one who probably saw the original 'dioramas,' was a modest finance ministry functionary - Hippolyte Bayard - who also a part-time inventor.

On Monday, 24. June 1839, at a charity benefit, he presented 20 photographic prints - on paper. It was a sensation! In the same year, the Englishman Fox Talbot, made negatives on paper - and positives from these.

This process, called 'calotype,' was perfected in Paris. It allowed the production of unlimited photo prints. In 1851, the first printer produced books with photographs in them - glued-in by hand.

In the same year the first photographic society was formed in Paris, and the first photographic journal 'La Lumière' - with the first mention of Scott Archer's new process, the damp collodion - which eventually killed the 'calotype' but ushered in the age of the great portraitists, who became society's lions.

Meanwhile, in French society as a whole, the ruling class was conservative, 'romantic' and mediocre. Ranged against them, were a panoply of republicans; liberal, realistic and open to new ideas. Tension led to the February revolution of 1848.

This resulted in the election of Napoléon III and 20 years of a triumphant middle-class, as well as the period of the industrial revolution in France. Photographs submitted for exhibition at the 1850 Universal Exhibition were refused as artworks because there were judged to be products of science.

Hardly discouraged, the photographers spent their time in literary and artistic circles. And they took to the streets with their heavy cameras, before the partial demolition and renovation of Paris under the direction of Baron Haussmann.

In the Universal Exhibition of 1855, the 'realists' - painters as well as photographers - were again rejected. In the photos that were shown - mostly studio portraits - some street photos did slip in, showing people.

But commercially, the public wanted portraits rather than landscapes or cityscapes. The pioneers Le Gray, Le Secq and Nègre, all installed their studios in the same building near the Madeleine. For a time, all - intellectuals, writers, financiers - who wanted to know about photography came here. But, by 1860, the adventure was abandoned.

Nadar was a journalist and cartoonist before taking up photography out of necessity. His brother, Adrian, student of Le Gray, opened a studio on the Boulevard des Capucines while Nadar had a rooftop one at 113. Rue Saint-Lazare.

Nadar's advantage over run-of-the-mill portraitists was that hephoto: r seine & r echaude knew everybody worth knowing, especially in the 'realist' circles. He made a lot of money fast and moved to 35. Boulevard des Capucines.

Then portrait photography became industrialized, with the introduction of the post-card format portrait. If Nadar charged 100 francs - an important sum - then Disdéri charged 20 francs for a dozen.

At one time; 90 people worked in his atelier in the Boulevard des Italiens, turning out 2000 prints a day. Disdéri was the world's richest photographer until others started charging less.

Everybody wanted their photograph taken. Studios were legion and competition was fierce.

During the war and revolution of 1870-71, very few photographers stayed in Paris to record it. Afterwards, some even 're-created' scenes of the events - some with remarkable photo-montages - thus inventing the use of photos for propaganda purposes.

After the revolution, the portrait studios resumed business. The new painters, who could not get into the official salons, showed their works first at Nadar's studio. As odd as it may seem, 'Impressionism' was a neighbor of 'photo-realism.'

A one-time minor actor, one-time minor painter, Eugène Atget, wandered into this scene in 1886 after arriving in Paris in 1878. As near as I can make out he was a player on the fringe; he knew the theatre, he knew the art world - but he was part of no movement, and no 'salon' or movement knew of him.

Thus, to history he remains 'strange.' Eugène Atget really become a famous photographer only after he died on Wednesday, 3. August 1927. He began to photograph Paris in 1890.

On his door, he tacked a sign reading, "Documents pour Artistes." In theory Atget went out in all weather conditions to make pictures that artists could paint from in their studios. Today there are few paintings that can be positively identified with Atget photos - so the success of this venture remains doubtful.

Starting in 1897, he began specifically looking for 'old' Paris. He did this on his own initiative and he continued it until he died.

He left his home every day just after dawn with 15-20 kilos of equipment, to capture what he felt was soon to disappear. He went everywhere in Paris and went to its edges - the 'zones.'

In 1897, he seems to have gotten a commission from a publisher, because he did a series of photos called, "Petits Métiers de Paris" - which featured scenes of ordinary workers and street vendors. These were published as 80 postcards.

Whether this 'commission' gave him the idea to record 'Vieux Paris' or whether it fitted into ideas he already had, is unknown.

A year later, he sold collections of photos to the city's Musée Carnavalet. Later he sold otherphoto: retouche shop series' to Paris' Bibliothèque Historique. The latter complained afterwards that his technique was sloppy - compared to other photographers who had been commissioned to make architectural recordings.

Even at the time he was working, Atget used material that was out of date. It was heavy and complicated. With long exposure times, 'accidents' happened and Atget left them in the prints - such as blurs of moving people. Window reflections, which many photographers hate, he printed.

After 1910, Atget began to conceive of themes, which he executed as albums in a systematic manner, such as "Intérieurs Parisiens, Début du XXe Siècle" and "La Voiture de Paris." These he wanted to publish in the form of books, but no publisher was interested.

During WWI Atget's activities were curtailed. A man on the street with a camera was a potential spy. He feared bombs would destroy his collection of glass negatives. After the war, he photographed the empty parks of Saint-Cloud, Versailles and Sceaux and the gardens of palaces - partly to avoid harassment.

The man gave himself a job to do and did it his own way. Because he could not assure the safe storage of the glass negatives, he offered them to the art section of the education ministry in 1920. What he offered was, merely all of 'Vieux Paris' - contained on 2621 plates, for which he received 10,000 francs.

Around 1925 he met Man Ray. Atget had moved into 17 bis, Rue Campagne-Première in 1899, a long time before the heyday of Montparnasse, while May Ray, who arrived in Paris in 1921, moved into the same street in 1922.

Like Atget, May Ray was an ex-painter. Unlike Atget, May Ray was in the Dada camp, which evolved into surrealism. After living together in the same short street for three years, Man Ray 'discovered' Eugène Atget.

Four of Atget's photos, unsigned, were used in the magazine 'La Révolution Surréaliste' in 1926. But it was Man Ray's assistant, Berenice Abbott, who became excited about Atget's photos.

She did three portraits of him, but when she went to deliver them, the 70 year-old Atget was dead. Berenice Abbott managed to buy a large collection of Atget's works from the estate.

She loaned some prints to the Film und Foto exhibition in 1929 and in 1930 she brought out the book, 'Atget: Photographe de Paris,' in French, German and English.

This established Eugène Atget as a 'photographic artist.' Ms Abbott sold her collection of 4000 prints and 1300 negatives to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

Eugène Atget never considered himself as a 'photographic artist.' His 8000 surviving photographs are a form of documentation, a record of 'old Paris.'

Artist, he was though. While alive, he was certainly aware of officially recognized photographers and their works even if they were totally unaware of him. As a life-long Republican he was also interested in society, so many of his pictures depict social-realism in Paris.

In his time, Eugène Atget knew what he was doing. But he didn't write much about it. What we have instead is documentary evidence - the photos that he did over a period of 30 years, from the end of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th.

Atget obstinately declined to follow any trends excepting his own - thus leaving a body of work, outstanding for its documentary value, and unique for its - 'artistic' - interpretation.

Today Eugène Atget is considered to be the incarnation of 'Paris and photography.' We are lucky that somebody decided to be 'it.'

This week winter has a grip on Paris. People in the streets are muffled up and where they are standing in line, outside the warm boulangeries, little fog clouds rise above them.

Why did I decide on Wednesday to do this article about Eugène Atget? I imagine I was thinking of going out in all weathers, for 30 years. I imagine it is because it is winterphoto: metro overhead, nationale and nearly everything is grey. I imagine it is because I have to think a bit differently about black and white and do it while I am outside on the cold streets of Paris.

I think I imagine it because I've been in this thing of Atget's for over 10 years now. How little I knew. When I started in 1989, I had never heard of Eugène Atget. Now that I have, I wonder if I can keep tramping for another 20 years.

If interest in Atget's work is based on the aspects of Parisian life that have disappeared, I certainly know that many things I photographed ten years ago have disappeared.

The difference is in details. Today there is evolution - not real change - so what I'm doing is less likely to have any historical interest.

Now that Paris has become more of a huge museum than ever before, the remaining scraps of 'Vieux Paris' are likely to be preserved instead of 'disappeared.'

As far as 'artistic' goes, if the Musée Carnavalet or the Bibliothèque Historique become interested in what I'm doing, I'll probably be judged 'sloppy' too.

The photographs with this article and throughout this issue are not copies of Atget's photos. One was taken on New Years Day, 2000. Some were shot in Wednesday, in the area between the métro Nationale and the Jardin des Plantes. Others were taken on Thursday around Châtelet and the rest were taken in the Quartier Latin today.

All photos: Ric Erickson©2000
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