Among photographers of the early 20th Century, a special place of respect is usually held out for the Frenchman Eugene Atget (1857-1927).
In part, this reverence stems from the odd, poetic symmetry between the facts of his own life and the principal subject of his pictures. Almost totally unknown beyond a small circle at the time of his death, Atget labored with insightful concentration to record the Paris that was quickly vanishing through the relentless march of modern progress. Posthumous rediscovery of Atget coincided with the poignant recognition of temporal loss recorded in so many of his lovely photographs.
“Atget’s Magical Analysis: Photographs, 1915--1927,” which opened Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is billed as the first exhibition to focus on the photographer’s late work. It is predicated on a belief in a substantive, postwar shift in the photographer’s art, one that begins to express aspects of contradiction, ambivalence and ambiguity in his work after 1915. The selection, however, doesn’t really make a convincing case for either the nature or the causes of that shift.
Still, it’s worth taking advantage of any excuse to look at Atget. Aside from 16 images on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago and, especially, New York’s Museum of Modern Art--by far the largest repository of Atget’s pictures, thanks to an early rescue effort by the American photographer (and Atget disciple) Berenice Abbott--the show is drawn from among the 246 prints acquired by the Getty in 1990. Most of these are vintage prints, although a few were printed posthumously by Abbott.
All but four photographs in the show date from the 1920s (one was made in 1900, three in the 1910s). For a photographer whose lifelong catalogue of pictures numbers perhaps 10,000 images, it’s too much to expect an exhibition of just 43 to offer a full accounting. Within the constraints of space, however, curator Weston Naef has chosen well in his effort to convey the range and complexity of Atget’s program.
In effect, the photographer catalogued his subjects in sets and subsets--boats on the river, shop windows and street fairs; willow trees, parks, and the facades of buildings; occupations, in general, and prostitutes, in particular.
This method of cataloguing was established early on. Between 1898 and 1914 Atget made his living supplying photographs to various city bureaus, including the archive of the national registry, and he also had a steady clientele of architects, publishers and artists who wanted representative examples of particular motifs. His extensive photographs of prostitutes, for example, of which three are in the show, were originally commissioned for a book on the subject that ultimately went unpublished.
The one early picture in the exhibition--a famous portrait of a ragpicker--is, like those of the prostitutes, revealing of Atget’s basic method. Costume, setting and accouterments describe or give broad clues to occupation. He always worked with a tripod, and when people were his subject they frankly feel posed.
As a straightforward document, the ragpicker photograph is unremarkable. Yet, at a moment when most photography meant to mimic the pictorial conventions of painting, in a naive effort to gain legitimacy for the mechanically-based medium, that straightforwardness ends up being startling. It’s plain that Atget’s ragpicker has been set up simply for you to see . A delectable photography of display, Atget’s art doesn’t lead you outside itself. Instead, a visual conversation is established between spectator and picture.
That same sense marks Atget’s other photographs, in which people rarely figure. Store windows filled with merchandise and with printed signs meant to be read are obvious examples of his interest in the dialogue of display; but, the same applies to his pictures of the empty streets of Paris or a pair of brutally trimmed willows. You are there to examine them, the way the photographer did, and they are there expressly to be examined.
Here, on those rare occasions when a stray figure does appear in Atget’s photographs of vernacular Paris and its environs, it isn’t as an active player in an urban scene. Whether a uniformed figure standing before a building at Versailles, or another leaning out of a doorway in a narrow street, Atget’s people are most notable for the way they watch you look at them.
It may be that this emphasis is the inevitable result of the artist’s early career. Before he took up the camera in 1897, at the age of 40, Atget had been an actor. (He wasn’t very successful, but he played in a variety of repertory and touring companies.) His catalogue of trades and occupations focuses on “roles” played in modern life, while his land- and cityscapes are its expressive “sets” and his pictures of store windows itemize its “props.”
Although Naef doesn’t say so in the brochure that accompanies the show, the unspeakable devastation of World War I may have been an important spur to the direction in which the photographer already was headed. A horror unprecedented in human history, the war had a profound effect on countless European artists. For Atget, who already was drawn to recording the disappearance of a 19th-Century way of life, the trauma may have firmed his resolve.
The equipment Atget used was, in technical terms, utterly obsolete. He employed an 18x24-centimeter bellows camera with rectilinear lenses, and shadows visible at the top edge of many of the pictures are ghosts of the old-fashioned clips used to hold the photographic plates in place. He printed most often on albumen paper, which yielded a soft image with great visual depth; out of favor since the turn of the century, the paper finally ceased to be produced in the 1920s. Disappearance is reflected not just in his subjects but in his techniques.
Among the most hauntingly beautiful pictures is “The Park, Versailles” (1920), which records an autumnal scene in a vacant corner of a famous site from France’s imperial past. Shadows are long, trees are barren; it is late in the day, late in the season. A carved torso of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, stands erect, a sheaf of wheat as scepter, a crown of wheat woven in her hair. Her head is downcast and turned slightly away, following our gaze down the long and stately alley into the radiant distance.
With carefully constructed compositions such as this, it’s easy to see why Atget would be important to the new Surrealist artists who would soon emerge in Paris. (Think of everyone from Man Ray to Cocteau.) Never digging into the realm of the unconscious, his guiding rule instead was to coax imaginative insight from the artifacts of the everyday.
At the J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; (213) 458-2003, parking reservations required; through Jan. 5. Closed Mondays.