What Atget Saw

On a recent trip to the MET, I found something I wasn't supposed to find. I was strolling through the Photographer of Paris exhibition, a show dedicated to Charles Marville, the official photog of Paris in the 1860s whose body of work constitutes an exhaustive visual survey of the city, when I stepped into an adjacent room arranged with photographs from other observers of the city.

There I was immediately drawn to a sepia-toned photo of a cafe, its sidewalk tables and chairs organized neatly underneath an awning. A perfect symbol of Parisian life (one imagines Hemingway sitting at Les Deux Magots, people-watching as he enjoyed a coffee or something stronger), except that the seats are vacant and the cafe is ghastly empty. 

I was entranced. The caption said the photo had been taken by a Eugène Atget. Now there's a photographer after my own heart, I thought.

Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for taking photos without any people in them, as if I fear being accused of anesthetizing the experience of a place and its human complications. But the objects of a place, the ornamental details, the colors, the detritus, are simply where my eyes are most often drawn. 

Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to those of the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passer-by a culprit?
— Walter Benjamin

The casual observer may not notice much of a difference between the work of Charles Marville and Eugène Atget. After all, a photo of a lamppost or a cobblestoned street is ostensibly just that, a photo of a lamppost or a cobblestoned street. Personally, though, I found Marville's photos a bit of a snooze--sterile and archival, too much like the government survey they were meant to be. Yet Atget's photos seem to take on a life of their own, mainly because they are so surreally emptied out and abandoned. You are allowed to imagine the lives that tarried there, and sometimes you catch the smudge of a shadow standing in a doorway.

These images are evidence, documents of the world created by humans and then left behind. Because his pictures isolate scenes that we see every day, they cause us to reconsider the ordinary with a heightened sense of awareness, beckon us to appreciate the beauty in the simple details of our daily existence.

[Atget] will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization.
— Berenice Abbott