There are two quotes about photographer Eugene Atget that I particularly love. The first: After his death, the doctor asked his neighbors what he had died of. They replied, “He was an eccentric.” The second: “Atget never realized that he was Atget.” He never understood (or didn’t care to understand) the weighty place he occupied in the history of photography, or the influence he had on other photographers.
He didn’t think of himself as an artist. He didn’t care for artistic movements and labels. He saw his job as utilitarian. He documented the world around him, and created photos of objects that painters could use as a resource. He lived from 1857 to 1927, and he documented the streets and homes of Paris.
He photographed shops and alleys, he photographed staircases and parks and monuments and trees. His subjects were the ordinary, everyday haunts of Parisians: wig stores and litter-cluttered alleys, dingy rooms and the spaces in back of restaurants. His photographs are hauntingly beautiful. They’re beautifully focused and composed; beautifully light and dark. Because his purpose was to photograph a thing, or a place, the movements of the people in the space didn’t concern him.
As a result people and animals become a ghostly blur – a transitory spirit biding time in the solid iron and stone buildings. I find Atget’s photos wonderfully cinematic and inspiring, and I could pore over them for hours, looking for the stories behind the facades.