Eugène Atget and the Art of Old Paris



Eugène Atget was a 19th century French documentary photographer, and an enigma. Later in life, he was noted for recording old Paris’ architecture and street scenes before their disappearance to modernization.

Details of Atget’s early life are obscure. Born in 1857, he was orphaned by the age of five and was brought up by his grandparents. Atget was a sailor in the early 1870s, and then an amateur actor, which has been said to account for the stage set quality and the moodiness of his images.

Atget never called himself a photographer but referred to himself as either an “author-producer” or a “documenter.” The Parisian was a private, often reclusive man who experimented with painting and acting prior to photography. Lugging around a large-format view camera, he wandered the streets and gardens of Paris, often at first light.

In 1898, Paris was undergoing a sweeping physical transformation. Emperor Napoleon III desired Paris to be the most modern, clean, and prosperous city in the world. Baron Georges Haussmann was chosen to execute Napoleon’s vision. It would include new, wide boulevards, buildings, parks, squares and bridges. The modernization would require the demolition of neighborhoods and monuments judged irreplaceable.


There was public opposition to the demolition of Paris’ architectural heritage.  In 1897, La Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris was established, consisted of clients and acquaintances of Atget. The artist-actor settled into the role of commercial photographer, and placed a sign on his door that stated “Documents for Artists.”

Although, Atget did not work directly for the board, he was compelled to document the disappearance of buildings as modernization schemes swept the city. Disregarding the majestic new views, the photographer began recording ‘Old Paris’ around 1897, and continued until about 1915. Atget integrated the atmosphere and details of the time-worn, cobbled streets, worn-out architecture and architectural trimmings. His series, The Art of Old Paris was composed of more than 3,000 images. He sold his prints to museums, libraries, set designers and artists in Paris, France and abroad.

The photographer focused on architecturally decorative details. From 17th and 18th century  iron grillwork, signs, door knockers and adornments including gargoyles, dragons, gorgons and sea monsters. Highlighting the “ornamental sculpture” from its surroundings, he emphasized the architectural details augmenting a surreal element to his Old Paris photographs.

He also photographed doors and doorways of the aristocratic mansion-studded Marais sector of Paris, which illustrated the “grandiloquent expression of privilege” instead of seeing it as an entrance for admittance and barriers. The documenter was spellbound with windows and reflections for their striking effects. The contorted reflections gave his photographs a dreamlike fluidity to an otherwise constant and symmetrical composition. Atget would often visit the same boulevard, structure or tree to record any variations that might have been disregarded or forgotten.

In the 20s, the American photographer, Man Ray became acquainted with Atget, and encouraged other artists in his creative circle to visit the photographer. However, it was Man Ray’s assistant, American photographer Berenice Abbott, who continued his legacy. Abbott continued to promote Eugène Atget, even after his death. All in all, it is estimated that the photographer produced and sold 25,000 prints to institutions and individuals.

During his lifetime, Atget was not well-known, but he is admired today as a forerunner of Surrealism and modern methodologies to the art of photography. His urban scenes of stolen glimpses, oblique perspectives, offbeat reflections and unusual details – express a markedly modern encounter of Paris.

According to art critic Walter Benjamin in 1936, Atget’s images appeared unpremeditated, but were remarkably like the “scene of a crime.” Eugène Atget left a visual record of a vanishing city, Old Paris in his art photography.

By: Dawn Levesque

National Gallery of Art
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum

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