Scouring the streets
Faux Amis: Richard Wentworth/EugÞne Atget At the Photographers' Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2 until 18 November EugÞne Atget and Richard Wentworth depict life in cities at the beginning and the end of the 20th century. As 'faux amis', their photographs are compared in a fascinating exhibition that questions assumptions about our everyday surroundings.
Atget's atmospheric representations of Paris at the turn of the 20th century are more enigmatic than they first appear. An orphan at five, and turning to photography after a short-lived acting career, Atget was interested in people, their habits and environment.
The photographs in this exhibition, however, are particular in their lack of people (due to the need for long exposure times).
Instead, the lives of the Parisian working classes are illustrated through their implements of work, the objects that they collect and sell, shop windows, street corners, houses - the traces of their existence.
Not that these images are sterile, far from it: the impression that someone has just left, or is about to enter a scene, is paramount.
Where people are present they are a ghostly blur (above right), or poised like statues, as in Lampshade seller, rue Lepic, 1900.
Some of the street-scenes, stairways and interiors are from an undiscovered world - so different from the Paris of wealthy sophistication, grandiose buildings and wide boulevards. These are scenes from the 'zones': the memory of an 'underworld' that made Paris tick. The ragpickers and their shanty towns, the gaping-mouthed archway to Montmartre and the bohemian quarters, creativity intermingled with poverty. Is this, then, the 'real' Paris of the early 1900s?
In comparison, Wentworth's photographs from his series 'Making Do and Getting By' (1974-2001) illustrate the peculiarities of behaviour in a more specific manner. These images of objects being used for other than their intended purposes are themselves displayed unconventionally - propped side-by-side at eye level against the wall. Even the 'chair' for the gallery staff is a pair of stepladders, adding to the sense that everyday objects have been displaced.
As the series' title suggests, the photographs illustrate a non-designed aesthetic, created by human spontaneity (above left and top). For example, Bethnal Green, 1989 depicts a row of tea-towels drying on railings - for a moment in time the railings become a washing line. In South West France, 2000 and 2001, observations of a postbox over consecutive years, the only difference is the removal of one of the pieces of tape used to keep the box closed, while the photograph of a dog tied by its lead to a bag in Gray's Inn Road, London, 1982 shows the momentary use of each to secure the other in the owner's absence.
Such idiosyncrasies create a sense of place, which develops or disappears over time. Atget's buildings were ready for demolition; his lampshade sellers and horsedrawn removal carts have vanished with the advent of the motor car and consumerism.
The scenes that Wentworth records may disappear even more abruptly, but they illustrate a timeless human trait - ingenious improvisation with whatever is at hand.
Wentworth's bold, off-the-cuff shots are a sharp contrast to Atget's frozen images of a sepia world. These faux amis with almost a century between them, so different in many ways, are juxtaposed here to intriguing effect.
Liz Ellston is a Part 2 architect working in London