Preserving the Old Paris: The Photography of Eugène Atget
The evolution of photography into a fine art form begins here, on the streets of early 20th-Century Paris. Eugène Atget is most known for his photographs of the city, through which he supplied artists with documents, or references for their paintings. But while he made his livelihood in this way, Atget was also undertaking the larger project of preserving a Paris which was in danger of fading from memory as the city became more modern. Atget strove to capture the Old Paris by photographing the city’s ordinary (and sometimes overlooked) sights: ghostly shop window mannequins, empty cobbled streets, the peeling facades of old buildings. As for people Atget photographed, they too were fixtures of an old Paris. These were the organ grinders, prostitutes, bricklayers, and in particular, the chiffonier (ragpicker) seen in the image above.
The outcome of a documentary photograph depends on the cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subject, and in his photographs of Parisians, Atget captured his subjects as they were. Sure, the subject in the photograph above is posed— if you can call it that; the ragpicker was perhaps stopped in his tracks and asked to look at the camera. However, he seems to have done so only reluctantly. Even though Atget has imposed himself on his subject so that the latter is aware he is being photographed, the effect is not at all contrived. This is because Atget has allowed this man to remain at a distance. Glowering at us from a face half in shadow, the ragpicker gives as little of himself as possible to the photographer. Atget has not tried to disguise the ragpicker’s discomfort in front of the camera, but allows him to remain himself.
But for all its candid qualities, this photograph is clearly the result of more than the simple point-and-shoot method that one might associate with the purely documentary approach. Atget deliberately brings the ragpicker into sharp focus in the foreground. He composes the shot to show us how, despite the bags of scraps (the chiffonier‘s livelihood) piled above him, the ragpicker is in complete control of the towering heap. Leaning forward to balance the whole structure, the ragpicker shows us his self-sufficiency. Atget has framed his subject in such a way as to show his dignity, and his impenetrability.
Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College Student