EUGÈNE ATGET: The Invisible Photographer

By Jacques Bonnet

Translation by Brian Phalen


            Last Trip to Sceaux

        The Marquise de Trévise, owner of the Parc and Château de Sceaux, would die on February 6, 1923. On July 11 of the same year, her daughter Léonie de Faucigny-Lucinge, Princess of Cystria, believing she did not have the means to maintain the upkeep of the enormous, more or less abandoned, estate, gave the property to the Seine department. The mayor of Sceaux, Jean-Baptiste Bergeret de Frouville, fearing he would see the park handed over to real-estate speculators, made sure the State acquired it. During this period, the Trévises were the descendants by marriage of a certain Jean-François Hyppolyte Lecomte, a wheeler-dealer made rich in the wine business, having purchased, in 1798, the old Colbert estate-turned bien national before tearing down the original château to sell its materials. It was the Maréchal Mortier (named Duc de Trévise by Napoleon in 1808) who, in 1835, had the current château built in the Louis XIII brick and stone style.

        In July 1924, a general construction project for the estate was approved by the department. In autumn, Eugène Atget visited the park, which was probably not purely by accident. How the photographer obtained permission to visit the Parc, which was closed to the public, remains a mystery. He must have maintained a few contacts with the Commission du Vieux Paris, responsible for several reports on the park’s restoration, who informed him of the plans in progress. But which contacts? His primary sources, when he began photographing Old Paris, were the dramatist Victorien Sardou and the painter Edouard Detaille, dead in 1908 and 1912, respectively. Photographing the park, its buildings and sculptures, before the reconstruction probably interested him for commercial reasons as well as personal ones, since he had also returned during that time to the parks of Versailles and Saint-Cloud, where he had previously taken photos.

            Starting in Spring 1925, the then sixty-eight year old photographer began his work early in the morning, the pictures often taken at 7 AM. This means he left his house well before sunrise. After descending the five stories at 17 bis de la rue Campagne-Première with his thirty-pound kit on his shoulder, he walked a few hundred meters to the Port-Royal station to take the Sceaux line, then at daybreak, upon arrival, traveled the few kilometers between the Sceaux station and the estate. He takes – or at least, we acquired – 17 photos in March, 15 in April, 18 in May, and 16 in June. So a total of 66. Considering he took on average six to nine photographs per trip, that means eight to twelve trips in four months.

            In 1994, the Musée de l’Ile de France acquired two albums of Atget’s photographs that had apparently belonged to a local historian: one dedicated to the city of Sceaux, the other to the park. In the latter, the photos, which show six places in particular (the grand entrance, the staircase at the Allée de Diane, the pools near the Pavillon de l’Intendance, the Terme de Vertumne, the Bassin de l’Octogone and its sculptures, the Allée de la Duchesse and the statue of La Servitude, and finally the Pavillon de l’Aurore), at once display a disturbing poetry of abandonment and an admirable aesthetic coherence.

            One finds in these photographs a certain number of themes and aesthetic choices characteristic of that period of his work, and thus are also present in the photos taken at Versailles, Saint-Cloud, and, to a lesser extent, at la Malmaison and the Bois de Boulogne. He plays with the symmetrical reflections of the trees in the pond, the curious marriages of the statues with the foliage and branches, the paths winding toward the background, often opening out into a gap of light, and finally the artifacts (gates, lodges, alleys, statues, vases, stairs), left among the dead leaves, lichen, ivy and invading vegetation. These elements are already present in the photographs taken at Versailles or Saint-Cloud twenty-some years before, but are accentuated by the special state of the Parc de Sceaux in 1924. The upkeep of Versailles, for example, was never neglected to that degree.

            Atget took two photographs in May of the north staircase at the Pavillon de l’Aurore, its surroundings and steps invaded by moss, leaves, and various forms of vegetation, and then returned at the end of June. The staircase was by then clear, clean, civilized. The photo is accompanied by the following hand-written caption: “This staircase see photo 53 from May to June was scrubbed—the cleaning of the park begins.” This photo is the last that he took of the park, where, as far as we know, he never returned.

            This caption, rare for Atget, is interesting in more than one respect. It helps us in particular to avoid overinterpretation, which is quite tempting with such a laconic artist. Atget’s silence with regard to his work in general and to the thousands of photos we have received could only lead to risky interpretations. For once, it is clear: the disappearance of everything untamed about the very classic arrangement of the staircase drove him to end his photography project. It was a determining factor for him: Atget abandoned the park once it was no longer abandoned.

            Upon reflection, one can broaden this interest in the abandoned, that which is on the verge of disappearing, to a more considerable part of his work. It has been emphasized many times that “Modern” Paris, with few rare exceptions, had not interested him, no more than did the current events of his time. No trace of Haussmannian architecture, nor metro entrances, Alexandre III’s visit in 1896, damages from the Big Bertha, or celebrations in 1918. A number of horse-drawn carriages, but rarely an automobile. As for the railroad, one must rummage through thousands of glass plates to find some locomotives photographed from a low-angle on the tracks at the Gare de Bercy.

            This was certainly the original intent, when in 1898 he chose to expand his initial field of investigation (the documents for artists) to what interested the Municipal Commision of Old Paris at the time: conserving a trace of the places and buildings that could be damaged or completely destroyed by current or future construction—in particular that of the new metro and preparations for the 1900 World’s Fair. But perhaps it meant something deeper for him. He did not work so stubbornly and consistently for thirty years for purely lucrative reasons. His motivation was deeper, of course. Isn’t “work” often a compromise between financial considerations and deeper, more mindful, personal aspirations?

            The words in his June 14, 1912 letter to Marcel Poëte, the director of the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, who refused about fifteen of his photos of the Tuileries, were not used purely by chance: “I deeply regret our little chats, Monsieur, given all of the work I did for my love of Old Paris rather than for the profit it brings me.”

            Atget is clearly not very sensitive to nature for its own sake. One gets the impression he is not very tempted to lose himself or seek comfort in it, probably a stranger to all forms of pantheism. When not a single human trace is felt – tree trunks with tangled roots, for example – one senses the photos are motivated purely by form. Atget is a city-dweller, even in the country. His photographs never give the impression that he wants to capture the sublime or the eternal of nature, but rather its relationship with human activity. Even the fields with horses and plows from his early work are merely decoration. There is not a single photo admiring the landscape among all of his pictures, but instead a mixture of nature and man’s domestication of it, still intact, as in certain shots of Versailles, or very much deteriorated, as in those of Saint-Cloud and Sceaux. Men lived there, built staircases, pools, and walls that with time were reappropriated by nature.

            It is not a matter of an eighteenth-century taste for ruins, even artificial, as an excuse for a certain enjoyable melancholy. Abandoned alleys, overgrown staircases, statues weathered by centuries of rain, damaged by storms and frost, eaten away by moss or covered in ivy, wearing the scars of passed time, are captured in a state of dilapidation that suggests they are disappearing. This is the same fate promised to all the buildings of Old Paris destined for destruction, or those parts of the suburbs lost in the past century that probably will not be able to resist the incessant push of progress for much longer. Moreover, Atget occasionally calls our attention to it in his titles, as in La Voiture de Poste en 1905. Disparue, or with the buildings destroyed since they were photographed: Batiment de l'ancien Hotel-Dieu, rue Lagrange, disparu en 1899; A la Treille d’or, 6 rue de Conde (café disparu en 1899); Maison rue du Petit-Pont, 10, balcon. Appelée à disparaitre, etc. That is, when he does not blatantly photograph the progress of disappearance, for example the series taken from May 1913 to August 1914 during the enlargement of the rue des Pretres-Saint-Severin and the rue de la Parcheminerie. What’s more, as is often the case with Atget, these images disturb us, as if warning us of the destructions of future world wars.

            Atget is fascinated by disappearance, more in the original sense of dis-appear, as in “that which no longer appears,” than the one used often starting in the seventeenth-century, as in “to die.” Art in general, and photography in particular, has always maintained a connection with disappearance: the hand stencils in the Pech-Merle cave in Quercy; the shadow of the fiancé traced on a wall by the daughter of the potter Butades of Sicyon; the Fayum mummy portraits, painted of their living subjects and exhibited in their homes until the time came to decorate their remains. Not to mention an entire section of mimetic activity in painting or sculpture explicitly aimed at conserving memory: the posthumous portrait of a dead spouse or friend, that of dead children depicted in their bandages, and even the portraits of Louis XIV’s favorite hunting dogs that Oudry had to paint every time one of them died. Alberti, in his De Pictura (1435), evokes this specific function and cites the example, evoked by Plutarch, of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cassander, who was moved by seeing the portrait of his dead sovereign in a picture. He adds: “And so it is that the faces of the dead extend their lives, in a certain way, through paintings.” Photography easily inherited from the traditional mimetic arts this activity inherent to human anxiety and its hopeless attempts at fighting against disappearance. Not to mention more obvious cases such as the countless photographs of dead children in the nineteenth century or those of great men taken on their deathbeds.

            But photography does not need to capture death explicitly to refer to disappearance. All photographs, once taken, can feel mortiferous. The reality captured in the lense immediately disappears. This is true of all moments, of course, but photography’s artificial permanence makes us more dramatically aware of the relentless flow of time. (“Our real problem is to fight against time,” Bernd and Hilla Becher). Think of the immutable photographic rituals meant to immortalize those moments we consider too important to blindly accept their transience: births, first steps, birthdays, marriages, etc. And to cite, on a largely well-worn subject, only one author who was one of Atget’s contemporaries, Siegfried Kracauer:

The faces of pretty girls and young men are also subjects for the camera. Its popularity is a sign of the fear of death. The reminder of death, present in one’s mind in every image of memory, is what photographs would like to get rid of by their own accumulation. In illustrated journals, the world became the photographable present, and the photographable present is entirely immortalized. It seems to have escaped death, but in reality has succumbed to it.

          Photography's immediacy and diabolical precision make this feeling of disappearance more acute than in other visual arts (painting, drawing, engraving, sculpture). The characters in L’Enseigne de Gersaint are too “romanticized” by the medium itself and by Watteau’s talent for the drama of their inescapable, and now distant, disappearance to affect us as spontaneously as those bosses and employees, and even children, photographed in front of the family store in the 1890s, and for whom we immediately calculate the number of decades, assuming they lived full lives, that they have been dead and buried.

            On the other hand, artistic photography (pictographs being but one of its features), which shares a lack of spontaneity with its mother art, painting, due to aesthetic preparation and research, is a sort of “immortalization” of the captured moment, a way to escape passing time. And erotic, or even pornographic, photography is also a parenthesis in passing time by its apparent wish to intensify the senses and curiosity of its spectator. Or even the tableaux vivants, so popular in the nineteenth century—Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus (1865), by Julia Margaret Cameron, The Lady of Schalott (1861), or later on, the stagings of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings by Richard Polak (1870-1956), of which the dramatization, and all in all a certain ridiculousness from our now distant perspective, removes any spontaneous emotion. Likewise the stagings and photographic tableaux of Jeff Wall or Bernard Faucon. Time, expanded by the artificiality of the process, is frozen, and its fleeting nature is less painfully perceptible.

            Photographing “reality,” to avoid the problematic word “documentary,” is loaded with the promise of disappearance or, as Susan Sontag put it, “All photographs are memento mori.” All that in the banal social ritual of taking a photograph. And when photography is not in itself enough to suggest a more immediate disappearance, the subject or details about its context are there to reinforce it. This is the case in Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – which is merely a long reflection on “photography and disappearance,” inspired by the death of his mother and the rediscovery of a photo (“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die”) – with the portrait of Lewis Payne by Alexander Gardner (1865). The beauty of the young man and his look as he gazes at us make up, as Barthes himself admits, the studium of the photograph, but since it was taken in the cell of a killer who was about to be hanged, “the punctum is: he is going to die.” Or, to take another example, the photograph by Agustín V. Casasola of the man in the white shirt, the cigar between his lips, his hands in his pockets, his right leg bent slightly and his mocking look, that takes on a new meaning when we find out that Fortino Sámano, a counterfeiter, is standing before his firing squad.

            Our emotion changes instantaneously while looking at him. His nonchalance in the face of such a dramatic situation makes it unforgettable and forces us to think of our own behavior in that situation. Curiously, this photograph is a lot more disturbing than two of Casasola’s other, much more explicit, photographs: The Execution of Arcadio Jimenez, Hilario Silva, and Marcelino Martinez (April 28, 1909), where we see the firing squad, guns aimed at the men, the officer ready to signal with his sword, and The Execution of Francisco San Roman (Mexico, 1919), where four dead bodies are captured mid-collapse. The disturbing thing in the case of the insolent counterfeiter comes from information out of frame (extra-diegetic, as Gerard Genette would say in a more literary context). This is why the few words written in the margin of Atget’s last photo of the Parc de Sceaux are necessary for its complete comprehension.

1] Hidden under the black veil

        When Atget dies, on August 4, 1927, he is a curious sort of “non-celebrity.” He is unknown to the general public, but since his first sale of fifteen prints to the Musée Carnavalet on March 30, 1898, various Parisian institutions (the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Musée des Monuments Français, the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, etc.) purchased close to 17,000 (to which we must add the 572 prints sold between 1902 and 1904 to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the 137 to the Bibliothek des Kunst Werke Museum in Berlin). Not to mention the 2,600 glass plates sold to the Monuments Historiques in 1920. That must be some sort of record! But his photographs were acquired as documents and, more often than not, were put in thematic folders.

        Thus, when, in 1977, Molly Nesbit researched the 1,779 prints purchased by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs between March 24, 1900 and the year 1926, no one knew where to find them, and for good reason! They had been anonymously distributed in 5,000 Maciet catalogues organized by theme.

        This, of course, says nothing of the private sales. The MoMA has a directory of Atget’s that holds four hundred sixty names of potential buyers (with addresses, professions, areas of interest and schedules) of his “documents for artists.” One cannot, from this list, get an exact idea of the volume of business generated by these contacts, but it provides a glimpse at the photographer’s social network. Friends with painters, illustrators, architects, locksmiths, landscapists, scholars, collectors, writers (of which some were well known), as well as several barons of Rothschild! The directory has neither dates nor any other information after 1919, which leads one to believe there was another directory for after 1920. Not to mention the ones that probably existed by contact category or by name.

        A certain number of artists with whom we know Atget was in contact, such as Derain, Dunoyer de Segonzac, Dignimont, and Utrillo, do not appear in the MoMA directory. And one must not forget the merchants with his photographs on sale (Rapilly, Georges Sicot, Leclerc, Le Garrec, Danlos), who served as intermediaries with the institutions and would also sell to private buyers.

        Furthermore, the bibliophile Alain Fourquier compiled a list of twenty-nine works on Paris (not exhaustive, by his own admission) published between 1900 and 1927, including photos by Atget. One can add his photographs for smaller jobs, including the eighty printed in wide circulation on post cards. Finally, it is particularly important, given the consequences on his posthumous fate, that three of his photos illustrated the seventh issue of La Révolution surréaliste published June 15, 1926 (one of which was on the cover), and four in the following issue. Here again, the photographer’s name is not specified, but at his request: “Don’t put my name. These are simple documents I’ve made,” he said to Man Ray who had asked him to publish them. Even though the photographs were not signed, those in the surrealist circle knew who the author was. Man Ray’s old assistant Berenice Abbott would be the one to recover his studio collection and bring it back to America.

        All of these things complicate the image of Atget as totally isolated, without acquaintances or a social life. As Laure Beaumont-Maillet wrote in 1992, “Atget was not some quasi-tramp, completely unknown, as the legend would have you believe.”

       The hundreds of names in his directory are already a hint, and we know of his contact with certain members of the Commission du Vieux Paris, but it is certainly not everything. One can be solitary without being isolated or timid. Atget was an actor and lecturer and was thus used to speaking in public. He took hundreds of photos requiring “negotiations” in the broad sense, namely getting permissions from landlords and caretakers, arrangements, or quite simply a good contact with the people who were photographed so they would agree to be still for a few minutes. For example, he had to get along with the occupants of “parisian interiors” to whom he had gotten close and had requested the time to take some photos. The same was true for these groups of people just outside Paris who were apparently happy to pose for him.

Biographical traces

        Atget did not talk much about himself, no more than about his photography. The known facts are limited, accounts are to be taken with the usual caution, and the many hypotheses are to be considered far-fetched. Many written documents have been received. The important thing is not to flit from one type of clue to another.

            We had to wait for Jean Leroy’s welcome investigation in the 1960s to learn that “Monsieur Jean, Eugène, Auguste, Atget was born in Libourne (in the Gironde), rue Saint-Thomas, on February 12, 1857. He was the son of Jean, Eugène, coachbuilder, age thirty-eight, and Clara, Adeline Houlier, no profession, his wife.” The family, whose name was for a long time spelled “Atger,” is originally from Anduze in the Gard, where the grandfather, also a coachbuilder, had returned in the 1850s. It has been established that Eugène’s parents settled in Bordeaux two years before he was born and that his father, who had become a sales representative (“business employee,” according to his military record), died in a hotel room in Paris in June 1962. Atget’s mother died a few months later, and it was his grandparents, Auguste Houlier, employed at the Gare d’Orleans de Bordeaux, and his wife Victoire, who took the five-year-old child in and raised him. There is no trace of Atget between 1862 when, according to the census, he lived with his mother, and 1876 when, according to the same source, he lived with his grandparents. We know nothing of his studies, and the hypothesis that he spent time in a seminary where he would have learned Latin and Greek cannot be backed up with any tangible evidence. As an adolescent, he had, according to his own words collected by several sources, sailed to Africa or Uruguay, as a cabin boy not a sailor, though no one knows anything about this(/these) voyage(s).

            One picks up his trail again in Autumn of 1878 thanks to the archives of the French National Academy for Dramatic Arts in Paris, where he failed to be accepted. He was living at 21 rue de Flandres in the Villette neighborhood and began his military service (of five years at the time). The following Autumn, then lodging with “Monsieur Eysserie, 50 rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette,” he applied for admission again and was accepted. He took a class taught by Edmond Got, the famous actor of the Comédie-Française that Proust named “the greatest actor” in his novel In Search of Lost Time. Got’s first assessment of Atget in January 1880 was very positive, but this was not true of the following ones, and in January 1881 he was kicked out because his military status in the 76th infantry regiment at Tarbes was not deemed compatible with a satisfactory follow-up of his studies. After the death of his grandparents, he was demobilized in September 1882, one year before the end of his conscription.

            In the following years, Atget, who was then living at 12 rue des Beaux-Arts, played stock characters with troupes performing in the provinces or in the Parisian suburbs. Not much is known about the reality of this activity; the rare pieces of information he gave have turned out to be inexact. In any case, in 1886 and most likely in Paris, he met Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, granddaughter of a famous actress from the Comédie-Française, and daughter of actors, born in 1847 and ten years his senior. She had a ten-year-old son and performed, or would perform, in various shows, in Egypt (in Alexandria and Suez), in Roubaix, Marseille, Grenoble, Dijon, Paris, and finally, from 1897 to 1902, in La Rochelle.

            Around 1888, for unknown reasons, Atget moved to Clermont, in the Oise department, some sixty kilometers from Paris, as evidenced by a stamp that appeared on some of his photographs from that time (“Artistic documents/E. ATGET/Photographer/Clermont, Oise”). We don’t know when, though surely not before 1885, for technical reasons, nor how, but he learned how to use one of the simplest cameras of the time: a view camera with glass plates, equipped with a rectilinear lense, the plates allowing for prints on photo-sensitive paper.

            According to André Calmettes, after Atget abandoned the theater, which evidently did not stick with him, he first tried his hand at painting, then, disappointed with the results, decided to become a photographer of “documents for artists.” His experience in painting gave him insight into what sorts of things artists might have a use for. This allowed him to combine work with whatever really interested him. Photography was paid work and allowed him to remain in artistic circles. He probably considered himself to have an artist’s eye and spirit, but not the required skill, and found it beneficial to move to photographic technology.

            The first record of this new activity are the photos taken in Picardy: Farm, Abbeville; Abbeville, Somme (a haystack); Windmill, Somme; Path to Abbeville; Harvesters (Somme); Windmill in Amiens; etc. He also photographed fruit trees and flowers and left some photographic traces of a few trips – of which we know neither the dates nor circumstances – to Cannes and Nice (magnificent stone pines) and to Limoges (the country, plowed fields, chestnut trees). In one of the following articles, he mentions “simple groups” of sailors photographed in Boulogne-sur-Mer and we know of his photographs of architecture and seascape taken in La Rochelle during Valentine’s engagement, the last before his retirement, at the end of the century. In 1901, he traveled to Switzerland, probably for an order, and photographed Bern and Lucerne.