An urban explorer
The photographer Eugene Atget could never have suspected his posthumous reputation.
He spent three decades documenting Paris - its streets, shops, courtyards, parks - with a cool, questing eye for detail, whether a treetrunk, mannequin, or wrought-iron stair. By his death in 1927 he had made almost 10,000 prints, but to little public acclaim.
Thanks to fellow photographer Berenice Abbott in particular (whose Changing New Yo r k is, visually, one of the richest books on any city), he did not fade from view - in fact, very much the reverse, until in 1968 New York's Museum of Modern Art bought Abbott's Atget collection and gave him Modernist cachet. This new book explores Atget's posthumous career in terms of influence.
Placing his own images beside those of later photographers (French, German, American), it aims to show how fecund Atget's example has been.
The book relies on obvious rhymes: on one page an Atget photograph and opposite it a work by someone else that, in subject, composition or feeling, is its close equivalent. So the narrow alley of Atget's 9, rue Thouin (1910) faces Bill Brandt's Policeman in a Docklands Alley (1938), while the rows of shoes in Atget's Marche des Carmes, Place Maubert (1911) are twinned with rows of lasts in a 1928 image by 'New Objectivity' exponent Albert Renger-Patzsch.
Are these resemblances just fortuitous?
As the contributors to this volume admit, Atget's work is so multi-faceted that any number of lineages could be plausibly constructed; his archive could be edited to suit any argument. Some distinct strains of influence emerge nonetheless.
One link is with the American photographer Walker Evans, who focused on shop windows, buildings, signs (and much else), recording the vernacular. 'I am interested in what you see that is passing out of history, ' said Evans, which were Atget's sentiments too, as he sought out a threatened Paris.
Another (later) American connection is with Lee Friedlander, who pictures the interaction of man and nature in a very similar way.
Here nature becomes a screen and the ostensible subject, often architectural, is almost obscured by vegetation.
But perhaps the link with RengerPatzsch, and where that leads, is the most interesting. On another spread in this book an undated Atget of a crane on the quayside of the Seine is juxtaposed with RengerPatzsch's 1929 photograph of a dockside crane in Hamburg: in both cases, the industrial structure is the evident focus, and it is seen in a relatively neutral way, without the theatricality of an unusual camera angle.
Such images clearly anticipate Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose dogged 'objective' survey of all things industrial, continuing for 30 years or more, has often featured in the AJ - and like the Bechers, Atget worked in series.
It is Atget's own photographs that dominate the book, though, in all their diversity.
'From within the image there emerges, on the one hand, an architectural, volumetric, and plastic solidity, and, on the other, the atmosphere of place and its singular spirit, ' writes contributor Jean-Claude Lemagny. At their best, they are more than an inventory of facts - they feed your imagination.
No doubt some profit from the remoteness that sepia gives them; it always announces a vanished world. From our vantage point, shaped by the way that art has since been made and perceived, even technical deficiency - the flare of over-exposure - can pass for expressive intent; a print that Atget would not have sold in his lifetime is seen anew. Moreover, Atget frequented the margins of Paris, exploring its neglected zones. Current architectural interest in such territories, and in the everyday, may well intensify our response.
Atget could make Le Notre's gardens at Sceaux and Saint-Cloud look like the landscape equivalent of a haunted house. When his images are as well reproduced as they are in this book, irrespective of influence, they certainly reverberate today.