This week in class we mentioned Eugene Atget, a photographer that Bresson sites as one of his primary photographic influences in The Decisive Moment. Atget spent his photographic life in obscurity – never receiving great recognition for the 10,000+ pictures he dutifully made during early morning walks around Paris. Not that he was looking for adulation – instead, his goal was to sale his photographs as reference works to local painters, theatre set designers, libraries and museums.
Atget used an 18x24cm large format view camera with a slow lens. The lens didn’t often provide full coverage of the glass plate, so soft focus and vignetting, combined with his long exposures, give the pictures a dream-like feel. Atget’s work became foundational in the surrealist movement, and in 1926 Man Ray published his pictures in La Révolution Surréaliste, but per Atget’s request did not credit the photographer. Without Man Ray’s assistant, Bernice Abbott, it is possible his pictures would have been lost to us. While working in Man Ray’s studio, Abbott sought out Atget at his studio down the street at 17 bis rue de Campagne Première. Over time, Abbott collected Atgets prints, followed him in his daily walks and came to print many of his photographs. After Atget’s death in 1927, Abbott purchased his negatives, prints and records, many of which are now held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I first discovered Atget in a multi-volume set of books created from those records and published by MoMA. I had just begun my study of photography as an undergrad, and upon my first visit to the library as a freshman I checked out all four volumes. Back then, the library would write the students name on a library card pasted to the back cover, and by the time I graduated my name had filled up more than a handful of cards because I had checked the books out so many times. It is a beautiful collection of photographs, and I highly recommend you spend some time with them – I believe our own library holds a couple editions of each volume.