Atget and Marville, Photographers of Paris
Eugène Atget (1857–1927), often considered the most distinguished practitioner in the medium of photography, making it not simply a service for others, such as architects, planners, or archivists, but as a creative response to new conditions of existence, was born near Bordeaux. He came to Paris to attempt to be an actor, and then to paint, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. But then after around 1892, he became a photographer. Living with his companion, an actress, Valentine Delafosse Compagnon (1847–1926), whose death he barely survived, in 17 bis, rue Campagne-Première, Montparnasse, off the Blvd. Raspail, Atget daily heaved around Paris a heavy camera, wooden tripod, and glass plateholders, to record “Vieux Paris,” then the “Topographie du Vieux Paris,” and the “Environs” of Paris, going into smaller towns around the city and concentrating too on eighteenth-century parks, such as those at Versailles, photographed after 1901, and Saint-Cloud, especially after 1904. The “Environs” photographs had been preceded by “Picturesque Paris.” The total number of negatives he produced seems to have been around 8500.
Atget’s friend André Calmettes (1861–1942), as his executor, passed his work onto Man Ray (1890–1976), the American artist who was already, since 1921, living on the same street as Atget, different from Atget in being more a studio photographer than someone who photographed chance events on the street. He saw him as a proto-surrealist, and the archive passed to Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) and to Julien Levy (1906–1981), who married Joella Loy, daughter of Mina Loy (1882–1966), the British-born Dadaist poet, and who was to open a gallery in New York in 1931, and who also saw Atget in surrealist terms. Edited by Berenice Abbott, the first book-length edition of Atget’s photographs appeared in 1930 with an introduction by the novelist Pierre Mac Orlan (1882–1870), himself influenced by surrealism, calling photography “the expressionist art of our time,” the art of “le fantastique social.”
It was commented then how many of Atget’s photographs were empty, not centered on people, a comment made also about the photographs for André Breton’s novel Nadja (1928), which were mainly the work of Jean-André Boiffard (1902–1961), the surrealist who was to be more associated with Georges Bataille. This sense of deserted spaces, prompted Benjamin’s famous statement that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of the scene of a crime, and also attracted comparison with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), outstandingly “Gare Montparnasse” (“The Melancholy of Departure”), a work of 1914, which maps classical Rome onto a Paris railway station, the whole almost empty of people. In Atget, emptiness, like, as Abbott said, the momentary emptiness when the curtain goes up in the theater and before the action begins, connotes anxiety and a sense that anything might happen (the photograph is aware of fantastic forms of life in the city).
It is a question whether Atget should be regarded as a photographer of the nineteenth century, recording as documentation what he had seen, and what he wanted to remember, or of the twentieth, in which case he might be associated with the surrealists, who valued in him the sense of coincidences appearing in his pictures, and found objects (objets trouvés), and those moments when his photographs disturb apparently natural perspectives. As a nineteenth-century figure, he follows on from Charles Marville (1813–1879), the adopted name of the Paris-born Charles-François Bossu, who wanted initially to be an artist, but who turned to photography in the 1840s, by taking advantage of the new paper negative process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), which replaced the daguerreotype, when it was taken up by Louis Blanquart-Evrard (1802–1872) in 1847, producing multiple images instead of the single image on a silver-plated sheet of copper. A first photographic publishing house opened in Lille in 1851, associated with Blanquart-Evrard, and Marville was an early collaborator with him until 1855. Marville was early associated with recording the Paris that Haussmann was replacing, showing therefore both the old and the new, and his work was presented to the Musée Carnavalet, which Haussmann wanted to have created in the late 1860s, to show the history of Paris. “Old Paris” was becoming a subject for discussion and for recording in the 1860s, and Marville was part of an archiving of it, in the recognition that the city was now changing irrevocably.
Whereas Marville presents streets from their entrance points, sometimes from either end, so that he concentrates on perspectives which are intensified, giving long vistas down canyon-like streets, the perspective intensified by the symmetry of Haussmann’s architectural facades where these exist, Atget places his camera halfway down streets and concentrates on curves and angles. For example, he likes to show a corner coming out to confront the viewer, with ways receding from it both left and right: he does the same with steps at Versailles (Barberie no. 61). Both photographers like to suggest something beyond the end of the street they show: a door, another alley, and an archway with a road beyond. Both like to show roads leading off, but it is not known where, to other scenes; this is a feature which may distinguish their urbanism from landscape painting.
To look at Marville’s photographs in particular is to be struck by the unevenness of road surfaces, sometimes to the extent of different levels of streets, by the discontinuity where one street meets another: so often a street enters in from right or left, and the break-in road surfaces, pavements, light, and road level become interesting. So too does the discontinuity between buildings; the height of their windows; the lack of relation between one side of the street and the other, especially in their buildings; and the interesting skylines that the roofs form. Above all to be noticed is the proliferation of shop signs and advertising, which frequently take up whole walls and which indicate the number of small crafts and businesses at work in the area. A modern photograph of Paris is more likely to show complete homogeneity in the skyline, and far fewer signs, except for traffic signs: Marville seems to take pleasure in Paris as a city of signs or as one where the visual impression must be supplemented by reading the way the buildings seem to be captioned.
Since Marville does not show interiors, the signs of individual life are fewer, being those found in the characters of small shops and cafes. And Marville shows, as Atget does also, streets that disappear around a corner, with a play of light or shadow at the point of disappearance to indicate a further life beyond or an enigma to be solved. The cropping of the picture to right and left indicates a life continuing on either side, and what is being seen is only a fragment. Both, too, make much use of ironwork: in windows and in the ornamentation of streetlamps. Neither Marville nor Atget seem interested in Paris as a consumerist capital. In both, the sense of textures in walls, the narrowness of pavements, and the detritus or water in the gutters convey a city which requires effort to live in, as every part of it reacts to people’s presence and their passage down the street.
Atget’s photographs of Paris often use a wide-angle lens, which means accepting a certain foreshortening in the portrayal of Paris as a landscape. He does not illustrate monumental Paris: there is no Eiffel Tower, no Arc de Triomphe, no Garnier Opera, no Rivoli, and no Obelisk in Concorde. There are no priests, nor any signs of the military, nor aristocracy, and no portraits of friends (no Campagnon, nor Calmettes). He likes corners (les coins), doors, doorways (i.e., what has the character of a threshold), door knockers, stairways, walls and windows which protrude as with the Courtyard of the Church of Saints-Gervais-et-Protais (Barberie, no. 9), and interiors. For instance, he shows bedrooms, with their knickknacks, and signs of a private life; and he portrays the petits métiers (the small trades people) of Paris, especially around 1899, posing these, as if allowing them their objectivity, and shows ragpickers, and other workers who carry heavy baskets on their back (Barberie, nos. 6 and 7), and prostitutes (Barberie nos. 97–100), also posed, so allowing them to speak for themselves, and mannequins in shops, who make a contrast with his classical statues photographed in Versailles, always with the statue the only “life” in the picture. He photographed dire poverty in the “Zone,” the militarized area on the near side of Thiers’ wall of the 1840s (Cannon 2015: 95–98, 203–204). But there is always the sense of deserted places, even with his interiors.
Perhaps the difference between Marville and Atget lies in the former’s desire to document, in a topographical manner, and to read the streets of Paris in a way which is unforgettable, and unromantic, and the latter’s situation between going out to look and being confronted by the strange, in the chance encounter which surrealism wanted. Marville does not focus on detail though the streets give plenty, and he respects the lines of the streets that he photographs. Atget’s camera selects details, for example, the shapes of trees, in a way which is often witty, especially with his statues and strangely dressed figures in shops, or corsets hanging up (Barberie no. 66). He has more sense than Marville of oddness, and of contrasts, as with buildings of different ages, placed side by side; such contrasts as he shows indicate the city as a place of coincidences, or of places where something has happened, or is about to happen. The oddities appear when he shows rows of shoes in the Place Maubert, nearly arrayed in four rows, with, below them, incongruously, a pair of sabots obviously not for sale (Barberie, no. 73).
This display of order may be compared with the bar in Blvd. Masséna (Barberie no. 12) which shows a shelf full of bottles symmetrically arranged on the wall behind the bar, and the whole salon absolutely neat and clean, as if drinking would be a completely disciplined affair. There is a sense of incongruity and also a respect for reality never quite being what it is expected to be. There is an equal symmetry in the planted trees in the “Place de Terre” photograph, which shows the silhouette of two bare trees on either side of a park bench breaking the symmetry, and yet fitting in with it (Barberie, no. 131). He gets a similar effect with trees in a photograph of the Luxemburg Gardens (Barberie no. 110), where this time a behatted man is sitting with his back to the camera on a park bench in the middle distance, in an area where he is complemented by three statues, one of them, shown on an angle, the nearest to the camera, being Marguerite of Provence, so introducing a note of sexual difference into the scene, framing it. The classical statues in Versailles in their incongruity become a way of redefining what the city is: redefining it in that it has the power to draw other forms of life toward it. The picture of a brothel, at no. 10, rue Maget (Barberie no. 96), shows windows firmly shuttered (a contrast to the shop next door) and the double doors closed, so that all which appears is an architectural façade, with no inscription save the number, which, of course, always has implications of completeness.
That surrealists who adopted Atget indicated how much they thought they could learn from him; if he said was documenting the city, this was not a passive work nor one that idealized either the old or the new: it gave a new perception of the city; it gave the city a new way of perceiving itself.
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