Eugene Atget has always been sort of an enigma to me. When I started to delve into the history of street photography, a lot of people credited him to being one of the “fathers of street photography.” But when I first looked at his work, I was a bit confused. Most of his photos didn’t have any people in them. His photos were mostly of the architecture of Paris: doorways, arches, door handles, street facades, and the streets themselves.
I always thought that street photography had to include people in it. But Atget was talked about thoroughly in “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” by acclaimed photo historian Colin Westerbeck and by the great Joel Meyerowitz.
Westerbeck further explains the relevance of Eugene Atget by writing the following:
“While stop action images of people are bound to figure prominently in many collection of street photographs, this book also contains many pictures in which there are no people at all. The most salient examples are to be found in the works of Eugene atget. Yet even he was, through implication and inference, trying to show us life onthestreets. Suggesting presence in these midst of absence, he was attempting to reveal the character of the street as it inherited in the setting itself. Like every other practitioner of this genre, he wandered the streets with his camera, looking for what would they be called photo opportunities. More important, he’d was also like every other street photographer in his readiness to respond to errant details, chance juxtapositions, odd non sequiturs, peculiarities of scale, the quirkiness of life on the streets.”
Did Atget even consider himself a street photographer? Certainly not. In no records of him did he ever call himself a street photographer (the term was coined centuries after he even took photos). Not only that, but Atget saw himself as a “collector of documents” rather than being an artistic photographer.
However the more I studied Atget, the more I began to appreciate his work. First of all, nobody was as fervent as Atget when it came to completing his “life’s task” of documenting every facet of Paris. Although he sold his photos of Paris to museums and publications to make a living (he was probably the worlds first stock photographer) he did it all out of his own initiative and drive. At the end of his life when he was in his 70’s he was able to say proudly that his work was finished.
Through this article I want to better express some of the lessons I learned from Eugene Atget, both photographically and philosophically. Note that these are all personal interpretations, as Atget never spoke about his photography or explained any of it.
1. Be self-driven
The incredible thing about the work of Eugene Atget was how self driven he was. On a nearly daily basis, he rode the bus around Paris, lugging his large-format wooden camera (8×10) which with the tripod weighed over 40 pounds. He made it his life’s mission to document every facet of Paris.
Atget left no stone uncovered or detail overlooked. It is estimated that his archive of images is over 8,000 (not much to a digital photographer, but a massive archive considering he shot large-format entirely).
What spurred him to embark on this journey to photograph Paris? Well historically by the late 1890s there were many citizens who were concerned about the preservation of the historic districts in the city. That lead to the establishment of the “Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris”, which encouraged preservation of the historic aspects of the city. This caused there to be a revival of an interest in the “old Paris” which stirred a “Romantic revival.” With this interest in the historic parts of Paris, Eugene Atget had plenty of clients to supply photographs with.
The question I am not sure about (not sure if anyone has the answer) is what actually spurred him to start taking photos. He was a struggling stage actor for a while (people say this is what made him a “romantic”) and he was also known to be a painter.
Regardless, his actions showed his philosophy of tenacity and hard work. He photographed Paris for decades, using the same equipment– to capture the city as faithfully as he could in its entirety.
I have been to Paris a few times, and some of the local Parisians describe Paris as a city that you can always find something new. Even people who have lived their entire lives there admit they haven’t seen all of Paris. This makes me think that nobody knew Paris as well as Atget (at least during his time alive).
While Atget never talked about his own images, he shared his life’s vision for his work in this except:
“For more than twenty years by my own work and personal initiative, I have gathered from all the old streets of Vieux Paris photographic plates, 18 x 24 format, artistic documents of the beautiful civil architecture of the 16th to the 19th century: the old hôtels, historic or curious houses, beautiful facades, beautiful doors, beautiful woodwork, door knockers, old fountains… This vast artistic and documentary collection is today complete. I can truthfully say that I possess all of Vieux Paris.” – Eugene Atget
I would say personally I am less inspired by Atgets photographs
and more by his passion and hustle.
I think as a photographer one of the most difficult things is to have a strong vision and to have the tenacity to actually carry it out.
One great quote I read about the importance of execution of art (rather than just having a vision):
“What move those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” – Eugène Delacroix, painter.
Therefore I think one lesson we can all learn from Atget is to have a grand vision with your photography (it can be as simple as documenting every facet of the city you currently live in) and having the hard work ethic to actually go out everyday and shoot it.
With life and work this becomes difficult. We are bogged down by work, obligations, and other duties which tie us down. But rather than trying to accommodate photography to our busy schedules, why not try to make our busy schedules accommodate to our photography?
Make photography the center point of your life and hopefully one day (like Atget) we can proudly say that our life’s work has been accomplished.
2. Make your photos benefit society
“Now that I am approaching old age—that is to say, seventy years old—and have neither heir nor successor, I am worried and tormented about the future of this beautiful collection of negatives, which could fall into hands unaware of its import and ultimately disappear, without benefiting anyone.” Eugene Atget, (1920)
Philosophically, I feel that the purpose of taking a photo is to share it. After all, what is the purpose of taking a photo (or doing anything in life) if it won’t benefit society as a whole?
While I do believe it is important to shoot for yourself (and not to simply please others) I feel that as street photographers we have a duty and obligation to create images that will somehow help society.
Now this can be as simple as creating aesthetically beautiful street photography (with nice light and compositions) to show our viewers the beauty of everyday life. Or we can make if our mission to be more of a documenter or historian like Eugene Atget
to create images that our children in the future can reference to better understand the past. Or capture “socially-conscious street photography” that shows the ills and unfairness of society (different socio-economic and racial factors) to make a statement about the world.
Understand why you take photographs. Realize that the point of a photograph is to ultimately share it– and hopefully benefit others.
So ask yourself: “Why do I photograph and who will this ultimately benefit?” This will give you more clarity and purpose with your street photography.
3. Focus on “reality unadorned”
“The impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition – the shock of reality unadorned. The subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity. The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise, was mirrored in each print. Whatever means Atget used to project the image did not intrude between subject and observer.” – Berenice Abbott on the shock she had when she first saw Eugene Atget’s work
One thing that was quite revolutionary in Atgets work at the time is that he didn’t romanticize his subject (although many people from the “romantic school” were inspired by him). He shot them head-on, without any fancy tricks or gimmicks, and printed them faithfully.
There is so much beauty in life, especially in the everyday things. There is inherent beauty in a doorway, a door handle, the pattern of stones on the street, of a rail. However the problem is that these things are so ordinary and mundane that we often overlook it.
However imagine what Atget did. He looked at these everyday ordinary objects with fascination and curiosity. He took his massive 8×10 camera, carefully extended the tripod legs, turned his camera to his subject, focused, calculated the aperture and shutter speed, put himself under the black cloth, held his breath, and took a photograph. He put all this consideration when photographing something as simple as a door handle.
Of course taking photos of ordinary objects is much easier nowadays with our iPhones and automatic settings. But it is truly the slow and methodical nature of the large-format camera of Atget which allowed him to really consider his subject–no matter how ordinary.
I think that street photographers often look and hunt for the sensational and extraordinary. We look for people doing backflips, double rainbows in the background, or surreal situations.
However I think we should also focus on “reality unadorned.” To look at our everyday environments and objects and concentrate on them. Taking a second to consider them for their intrinsic beauty
however simple they may be.
I think William Eggleston and Martin Parr are great sources of inspiration when it comes to photographing ordinary objects and making them fascinating. Martin Parr often gives photography students the advice to find boring things and make interesting photos out of them.
4. Avoid famous landmarks
“Atget’s Paris was an ancient city of small scale. He rarely photographed large buildings or famous landmarks, and he avoided such modern monuments as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. His Paris was a private city, with no palaces, and few churches.” – Eugene Atget and old Paris
When it comes to photographing while in the streets or traveling, it is easy to get drawn to the iconic landmarks. If you are in London, you might want to photograph around Big Ben. If you are in Tokyo, it might be Shibiya crossing. Paris, it might be the Eiffel Tower.
Although Atget photographed the city of Paris extensively, he focused on the city on a “smaller scale.” He avoided the iconic landmarks and instead put his attention on parts of the city that was less adorned.
When it comes to photographing your own city or when photographing while traveling, steer clear of the touristy hotspots and landmarks. Rather, take a path off the beaten road– and pursue photographing where not many other people have photographed.
This means tossing away your map, and simply following where your curiosity leads you. Talk to locals, ask them where they generally hang out (away from the tourists) and I guarantee you will find much more interesting and personal photographs.
5. Avoid publicity
“Little is known of Atget’s life, because he was not considered an artist, by others or even by himself. In 1926, Man Ray reproduced an Atget photograph
a group of pedestrians shading their eyes as they looked at the sky, watching an eclipse on the cover of a Surrealist magazine. When he told Atget of his intention, the older man replied, “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make.” Nearly 50 years later, the self-promoting Man Ray was still amused as he told this story, explaining, “You see, he didn’t want any publicity.” Man Ray described Atget as “a very simple man, almost naïve, like a Sunday painter, you might say, but he worked every day.” – Luminous Lint: Biography on Eugene Atget
One of the ills that we fall victim to (myself included) is searching for fame and popularity for our photography. This is self-destructive in many different ways. First of all, it can compromise our own self-vision that we have for our photography (we might get suckered into creating photos that our audience like, rather than we like). Not only that, but fame can be distracting and take us away from our work.
Atget preferred to be low-key when it came to his photography. As shown from the excerpt above, he didn’t want his name on his photos for a front-cover of a magazine and wanted to avoid publicity.
He also referred to his photos as simply “documents that he makes”– rather than them being art pieces. Atget was very clear why he was photographing: not to earn critical acclaim but to create documents of the city of Paris for future people to appreciate and admire.
Not only that, but during his entire life he never exhibited his work. Many of us strive to have exhibitions of our own, yet this master never made it a point to show his work publicly.
It is in our blood and genes to be appreciated by others in society. However too much preoccupation with fame and popularity is unhealthy and will ultimately compromise our work.
Who knows what Atget would have done if he was born in this social media age? He might have a simple portfolio page for his photography, but he probably wouldn’t Instagram and upload every photo he took to social media and adding hundreds of tags on Flickr and submitting his images to dozens of Flickr groups.
I imagine Atget would simply focus on his photography, and not worry about how many likes or favorites he would get on his images.
A practical tip to not worry about fame or recognition in your street photography : take a social media fast. Instead of fasting on food (avoiding red meat, desserts, etc) take a break from social media. For starters, you can take a month off social media. So for a month, don’t upload any of your photos online. You might even try longer: 6 months or even a year.
I personally took a social media fast for about 10 months and found if to be the most refreshing thing ever. It helped me focus on my own work, rather than worrying about how popular my images would be online. And I think this ultimately helped my photography tremendously (in terms of focus, and also editing my work to the best photos).
6. Avoid artistic pretentiousness
I think as photographers we think it is important to have our work presented on the the finest papers, framed with fancy frames, and in respectable institutions.
First of all, he focused on his photography and ignored photographic clubs and institutions used to promote work:
“Throughout his career, Atget firmly embraced the milieu of the archive and rejected any artistic self-consciousness. He failed to join the numerous photo clubs or societies that flourished with the expansion of the medium. He insisted more than once to Man Ray that his job was to provide ‘documents, documents for artists’.” (Except continues below)
Atget also presented his work very plainly and simply:
“Atget eschewed any ‘artistic pretensions’ when presenting his sample copies to potential clients, using torn and mended prints and reusing album covers. Such presentation announced their status as simply catalogues of content that could be modified to suit a wide range of clients. At one point during the time that the artist was in correspondence with the V&A, the Museum asked for a quote for photographs produced in the more stable platinotype process. Atget refused, explaining that his workshop was not set up to produce anything but albumen prints for libraries, artists and editors to use for phototype and photogravure methods of reproduction. In this way, Atget insisted upon his status as the document maker, resisting the more expensive plantinotype process, which was later often associated with art photography” – Luminous Lint: Biography on Eugene Atget
Don’t get caught up in artistic pretentiousness when it comes to street photography and your own work. Embrace simplicity and plainness.
For example, you don’t need to shoot street photography with a Leica to get good images. Your compact, iPhone, or whatever camera you own will do.
You don’t need to print out your photos with expensive inks, expensive papers, and in pro labs. Embrace simple and cheap prints that you can readily get at drugstores, online, so you can share them widely. Forget about “limited edition prints” and wanting to sell them online for money.
Don’t add fancy borders to your images, watermark your photos, or feel that they need to be exhibited at fancy places. Get cheap and simple frames from IKEA and see if your local coffee shop would be interested in featuring them.
Street photography at its core is the most democratic form of photography. So let’s embrace that, avoid pretentiousness, and focus on being simple and down-to-earth with our work.
We all have a large deal to thank Eugene Atget. For one, he inspired leagues of master photographers such as Man Ray, Berenice Abbott to Walker Evans, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams. If Atget didn’t create the work he did, his inspiration wouldn’t have profoundly influenced generations of photographers to come.
In today’s digital age, it might be difficult to relate its Atget and his work. Very few of us (if any) have ever used a large-format camera in street photography (myself included) in the streets. We have no idea what it is like to lug around a 40-pound camera (and we complain about our “heavy DSLRS”). Not only that, but his photos (at first glance) just look like a bunch of snapshots of architecture and buildings.
So I think it is important for us to consider the historical context of his pioneering work in street photography. He was one of the very few and earliest photographers who did so much work in the streets (while his contemporaries were shooting artsy nudes, flowers, fine art).
At the end of the day for me, Atget reminds me how important it is to have a vision for your photography and having the tenacity to execute it with passion and fervor. We should take photos that benefit society as a whole, while not making excuses that we are “too busy” to go out and take photos.
So let’s all appreciate and respect the work of Atget and what he did to pioneer the genre of street photography and simply go out and shoot- not worrying about fame, fortune, or external recognition. Let us do our work to benefit others
and create historical documents for our future children.
More photos by Eugene Atget
Below is a selection of my favorite Eugene Atget images:
To see more photos by Eugene Atget, check out this set: Photos by Eugene Atget: George Eastman House on Flickr
- Eugene Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography Biography
- Eugene Atget Biography and the Early Career of Eugene Atget: American Suburb X
- Luminous Lint: Biography on Eugene Atget
- Eugene Atget and old Paris
Books by Eugene Atget