‘Eugène Atget’s Intelligent Documents’

Atget: Photographe de Paris. Errata Editions, 2009

The first of the Errata Editions reissues of classic photography books is Atget: Photographe de Paris, first published in 1930.

The reissue includes an early version of the essay ‘Eugène Atget’s Intelligent Documents’, by David Campany. 

Let us begin with some facts. Eugène Atget (1857-1927) became a professional photographer at the age of around forty having been, among other things, a seaman and an actor. He was well read, cultured and acutely aware of Paris, its environs and the rapid changes that were transforming them. This was the subject that dominated the second half of his life. He photographed Paris for nearly thirty years, making approximately 8500 glass plate negatives, 18 by 24 centimetres in size. Some images were shot speculatively; others were commissioned.  He sold photographs to salon painters, cartoonists, sculptors, illustrators, avant-garde artists, sign painters, set designers, couturiers, industrial designers, architects, town planners, topographers, libraries and lovers of old Paris. Above his door hung a sign: Documents pour Artistes. Documents for Artists.

Atget’s studio was on the same street in Montparnasse as the studio of the artist Man Ray who encountered the photographer’s work around 1923. That year Man Ray hired Berenice Abbott as a darkroom assistant. He was looking for someone who knew nothing about photography (and would therefore be comfortable with his unorthodox practices). Abbott had come to Paris to be a sculptor but soon became a photographer. In 1925 Man Ray introduced Abbott to Atget’s photographs and she became fascinated. In her rich introduction to the book The World of Atget (1964) she recalled ‘Their impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition – the shock of realism unadorned. The subjects were not sensational, but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity.’ She visited Atget’s studio many times and purchased prints when she could. In 1927 she photographed him in her own studio and one of the portraits from that sitting became the frontispiece of the book of his work.

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Before he could see Abbott’s portraits, Atget died. With the help of the gallery owner and art dealer Julien Lévy, Abbott acquired a substantial part of his archive. This was the remainder after 2621 negatives had been sold in 1920 to the French state and a further 2000 had been sold shortly after his death to Les Monuments Historiques (by Atget’s close friend and executor André Calmettes). Abbott catalogued the plates and prints in her possession and in 1929 returned to America to arrange publication of a book of Atget’s work. (Soon after, she relocated to New York and began her documentation of the city very much in the style of Atget, eventually published in 1939 as Changing New York). She remained the great champion and promoter of Atget’s work until 1968 when the Abbott/Levy archive was sold to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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The book of Atget’s work appeared in 1930. A thousand copies were published in New York by E. Weyhe, a thousand in Paris / Leipzig by Henri Jonquières. Housed in a cardboard slipcase it had no dust jacket. The name ATGET was embossed in gilt on the dark red cloth cover (the French / German edition had cream coloured covers with the name in black). The Weyhe edition included an introduction in French by Pierre Mac Orlan while the Jonquières edition was introduced in German by Camille Recht.

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Around the time of the publication there was an exhibition of Atget’s photographs at the Weyhe Gallery in New York at 794 Lexington Avenue. The ground floor was a bookshop, with an exhibition space above.  The gallery exhibited many significant European and North American artists including Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Hopper, Edward Weston, Diego Rivera and Alfred Stieglitz. The bookshop would publish books and portfolios of the artists’ work. Photography sat comfortably both on page and wall, so the arrangement at Weyhe was an ideal platform for the presentation of Atget’s work.

In the late 1920s there had been a burst of interest in Atget’s photographs, mostly following his death in 1927. Numerous vanguard art and culture publications used or presented his photographs including Transition, Variétés, Le Crapouillot, L’Art Vivant and Arts et Métiers Graphiques.[i]  This interest provides the context for the appearance of the book so it is worth looking at some of these publications.

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Only four of Atget’s photographs were published by the ‘art world’ in his own lifetime and these were all in La Révolution Surréaliste. The first has become the most famous. The cover of issue number 7 (15 June 1926) reproduced a print that Man Ray had purchased. Atget had given it the descriptive title The Eclipse – April 1912. He insisted on remaining uncredited in the journal (“Don’t put my name on it. These are simply are documents I make”,  Man Ray recalled him saying). The title was replaced by a provocative caption: Les Dernières Conversions (The Last Conversions). A photograph of an informal group gathering to watch an eclipse is bent into a piece of anti-religious satire. Atget’s document was certainly being put to use by artists, but not perhaps in a way he would have expected.

Atget Crapouillot cover

In May of 1929 the French monthly magazine Le Crapouillot published a special issue on Paris. Atget’s elegiac shot of Notre Dame seen through the branches of a tree appears on the cover as a halftone print with a white border. It was printed separately and pasted down to look like a print in an album. Around thirty images by Atget, all from the collection of Abbott, illustrated a number of short texts on different parts of the city. Pierre Mac Orlan wrote about Montmartre but did not refer directly to Atget’s work (perhaps because that same month another publication, Merle, was running a piece by him on the photographer). Two months earlier in the March 1929 edition of Le Crapouillot Mac Orlan had published his remarkable little essay ‘Elements of a Social Fantastic’, a densely poetic exploration of several interwoven themes: the photograph as exemplary witness; the photograph as conduit to the spirit of a place; and the deep connections between photography and death.  Images by Atget could have sufficed as illustrations but Mac Orlan selected a lithograph of Daumier’s La Rue Transnonain and a police photo of a bedroom stained by blood. Mac Orlan’s essay for the Atget book picks up some of these themes. We will return to the idea of  ‘the scene of the crime’ a little later.

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In 1929 Abbott selected eleven of Atget’s photographs for inclusion in Film und Foto, the great traveling exhibition of modern cinema and photography that opened in Stuttgart. His now well-known image Corsets, Boulevard Stasbourg (1927) opened the book Photo-Eye which was put together by Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold and published to coincide with the exhibition. The editors juxtaposed the photograph in typical avant-garde fashion with a press shot of a diver, her shape mirroring the shape of the corsets. The diver’s crisp contour caught by the shutter also contrasts with the blurred garment that swings in the breeze that blows through Atget’s long exposure.   On one level the pairing suggests a free and dynamic modern world leaving behind the strictures of the old. At the same time, these images and subjects are contemporaries of each other (the Atget is dated 1927), suggesting the modern world is never entirely modern.

Atget’s photographs featured several times in the French magazine L’Art Vivant. In the issue published on January 1 1928 seven of them filled the centre spread. Atget’s name was misspelled ‘Adjet’ and a banner text proclaimed  ‘Un Précurseur de la Photographie Moderne’. This was and remains the position that art has given to Atget: a precursor of modern photography. Not a pioneer (that would suggest too strong an intention on his part) but a forerunner, a beacon.

Modern photography began in the late 1910s when the medium began to shake off its fawning imitation of painting to pursue an artistic identity of its own. Initially this meant an embrace of clarity, description and sober observation of the world. It pulled photography away from the canvas but brought it into dialogue, if not alignment, with the instrumentalism of the document.  Modern photography would be based not on artiness but on an intelligence of the document. Atget certainly made intelligent documents but not, in the first instance, as art. Rather it was art that recognised the intelligence of Atget’s work, rescuing it from the archival oblivion that befalls most documents. Pierre Mac Orlan was keen to emphasize this in his introduction to the book. For him Atget was an ‘artisan poet’ whose work, thankfully, had not been left to ‘founder in dispersion’.

We should stress this idea of the intelligent document, however nebulous it seems. It is very easy to talk of photographic documents as the brute result of machines, of perfunctory formulae or even mindlessness. It is true that the extremes of the photographic document have this character  – the passport photo, police photos and the like but these are extremes. Most documents require intelligence and some allow for a great deal of it. That intelligence may be overlooked in the functional and applied use of the image but art tends to hold use in suspension allowing the image to be seen in its complexity.

It has been said that the editing and sequencing of the Atget book contributed to a narrowly modern artistic reading of his work, bending his oeuvre to quite particular ends by aligning it with the progressive photography of the time. With just ninety-six images, the book could present little more than 1% of Atget’s output. Moreover the Abbott/Levy collection from which the choices were drawn was not entirely representative of the whole of Atget’s work. Compared to the French collections there were fewer straight architectural details, fewer of the uncompromisingly utilitarian record images, more urban views, more of the evocative and atmospheric shots, in general more documents that could be read more openly and more easily in relation the art of the time. To further this it was decided that Atget’s informational titles should be kept out of view in a folding flap at the back of the book and with no dates included. This certainly fostered a less contingent, more timeless and contemplative attitude to the images. It also asked more of the reader/viewer, recruiting them into the sense-making adventure of what were now much more open photographs.

Perhaps any book of Atget’s work would be a transformation of it. It was never meant to be a book. Atget had no desire to produce one, at least not one titled Atget.[ii] However complex his intentions, however intelligent his images, Atget amassed a working archive of documents. Documents are means to ends, not ends in themselves. But of course something happens when we try to treat documents as ends in themselves.  To look ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ or ‘through’ a document will always transform it. This is not altogether a travesty since a document treated as art, whether by Atget in the making or us in the looking, never quite transcends the document. It never quite overcomes its status as report or chronicle. We can never really look at a photograph without looking through it as a document. In this way art allegorizes documents, granting us the chance to consider Atget not simply as an auteur but as a working man with motivations, intentions, imperatives and pressures that were as complex as anyone’s.

All photographs give you more than you bargained for. They have the potential to exceed their function as documents. Walter Benjamin called it photography’s optical unconscious. Photographs are generous things but their gifts are unpredictable, especially if you don’t know what you think they should be giving you, or what you think you want from them. Let us accept that Atget did what he claimed and made “Documents for artists” as the sign over his door declared.  A literal reading of this would reduce Atget to a depersonalized functionary, simply meeting the artistic needs of others. But this would of course assume that those going to Atget knew exactly what they wanted. But what if they were looking for inspiration, or at least looking with open minds at what Atget had to offer? And what unconscious part might aesthetic response play in their conscious search of documents? Here the document opens out. Atget found a space between document and artwork. It was a space that allowed him to satisfy the demands of others and the demands of his own calling, without ever having to define either in the last instance.

The book of Atget’s photographs was reviewed by, among others, the photographer Walker Evans and the German critic Walter Benjamin. Evans’s article ‘The Reappearance of Photography’ (1931) was a round up of recent photobooks from Europe and North America.[iii]  He opened with a series of remarks on the medium’s relation to time and space, noting that recent practice was dominated by the exploration of  “swift chance, disarray, wonder and experiment”. But this had not been Atget’s calling. Evans remarked,

‘Certain men of the past century have been renoticed who stood away from this confusion. Eugène Atget worked right through a period of utter decadence in photography. He was simply isolated, and his story is a little difficult to understand. Apparently he was oblivious to everything but the necessity of photographing Paris and its environs; but just what vision he carried with him of the monument he was leaving is not clear. It is possible to read into his photographs so many things he may never have formulated to himself. In some of his works he even places himself in a position to be pounced upon by the most unorthodox of surréalistes.’

Even then Evans displayed a nuanced grasp of the fraught relationship between artwork and document.[iv] This tension interested Benjamin too. His ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931) was a treatise on the medium disguised as a review of photographic books.[v] In the late 1920s photography was looking back at its own history, perhaps for the first time. 19th century photography was being ‘renoticed’, as Evans put it, and several books were published to bring it to a new audience.[vi]  Benjamin opened with a discussion of the medium’s great early achievements before the descent into the populist mire of cartes de visite, narcissistic portraiture and kitsch. But, like Evans, Benjamin thought photography might be entering a third phase, a phase of intelligent documents assembled as small archives in book form that might reward a socially and historically alert audience.

Benjamin’s interest in photography was closely bound to his interest in constructing a counter-history of modernity out of its minor details and ephemeral fragments. Atget was significant because he was both a figure from the past and a contemporary photographer. He was man out of time. We ought not to forget that even in the 1920s Atget’s glass plates and prints of old Paris were a living anachronism. In his desire to photograph a threatened but still extant Paris rather than the newly emerging one, Atget figured the contradictions of modernity. By the second half of the 19th century industrial Europe was amnesiac – devaluing, erasing and forgetting the past that it did not need. At the same time it was turning History into a bourgeois discipline, in which the past could be selectively recruited to prop up the dominant order of the present. Benjamin sought a revolutionary history, one that he hoped would help to shatter the false continuum of history and emancipate the present. In Atget he saw if not an emblem of that counter-history then a path towards it. Photography was the child of modern progress yet its nature as record condemned it to look backward, to document ‘what is’ but to present it as ‘what was’. In this sense photography could leave behind facts but no interpretation of them. It could acknowledge the existence of particular things but it could not guarantee a particular knowledge of them. Detective work would be needed to rescue the images from picturesque nostalgia and make them meaningful.

Walter Benjamin remarked: “Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime?” He had read the introduction to the German edition of the Atget book in which Camille Recht compared the photographs to documents of crime scenes (‘eine Polizeiphotographie am Tatort gemahnend’). In fact Recht was referring less to the street shots than the images of domestic living quarters and he was pointedly political about these documents of dwellings: “a nuptial bed next to a chimney flue…testifies to the housing problem”. Nevertheless Recht’s invocation of the crime scene was already common in discussions of Atget’s work. For example in December 1928 Albert Valentin, one of the editors of the Belgian journal Varietés wrote:

‘…on closer inspection those dead-end streets in the outlying neighborhoods, those peripheral districts that his lens recorded, constituted the natural theatre for violent death, for melodrama, and they were so inseparable from such matters that Louis Feuillade [the creator of the serial film version of the Fantômas crime stories which were very popular in France] and his disciples – at a time when studio expenses were what was skimped on – employed them as settings for their serials.’[vii]

The projection of narrative – criminal or otherwise – is a way of taming the anxiety produced by Atget’s unpopulated pictures. Although they show indisputably social settings to read them as stages is to sidestep their troubling absences and voids. Turning them into backdrops for actions they do not show is a way of refusing to accept the unsettling temporality at the heart of so many of these images.

Today the work of Atget seems to loom larger, command more attention and generate more fascination than ever. A booming market both elevates and debases the public perception of art. High prices can cheapen things. Part of the enduring appeal of Atget is that he came before all this. Even in his own time he was outside the indignities of pursuing photography as art, knowing perhaps that the role of the “artisan poet” was in the long run more rewarding, for himself and for others. Perhaps he knew that art would only ever be one of many possible destinies for his photographs.

Photography has triumphed in the art of recent decades not by convincing us of its unique artistic merit. The merit of photography in art lies in its ability to dramatize the tension between artwork and document, between its artistic and its non-artistic character. That is what modern art photography of the inter-wars years was doing and why it claimed Atget as a precursor.  That is what Pop and Conceptual Art did in their artistic investigation of the functional document.  As the complexities of the archive come inevitably to dominate the minds of artists and photographers today, Atget  – or at least art’s version of Atget – achieves a new significance.  In his later years Walker Evans suggested “a document has use whereas art is really useless”. That is not quite true. An artwork does have uses but we can never predict what they will be.

Sample pages from the Errata Editions reissue (2009):

Atget Photographe de Paris Errata jacket

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[i] Photographs by Atget were regularly published outside of the name of art. See Georges Riat’s book Paris (Paris, 1900); and F. Berkeley Smith’s The Real Latin Quarter (1901) and How Paris Amuses Itself (1903), none of which credited Atget. Atget also issued some of his photographs as postcards.

[ii][ii] In 1909 Atget made a maquette of a book of sixty photographs titled L’Art dans le Vieux Paris. He hoped to publish it but it came to nothing. He did sell six bound and captioned albums of photographs to the Bibliothéque Nationale between 1911 and 1915.

[iii] Walker Evans, ‘The Reappearance of Photography’ in Hound and Horn no. 5 (October-December 1931). No illustrations. The books Evans reviewed were:  Atget:Photographe de Paris (New York 1930), Steichen the Photographer (New York 1929), Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist Schön 1928), Franz Roh & Jan Tschichold’s Photo-Eye (Stuttgart 1929), Arts et Métiers Graphiques 1930 (1929) and August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Berlin 1929).

[iv] Evans was less impressed with Atget’s book as an artefact: “The published reproductions are extremely disappointing. They and the typography and the binding make the book look like a pirated edition of some other publication.” Walter Benjamin found the volume “exceptionally beautiful”.

[v] Benjamin’s ‘Kleine Geschichte der Photographie’ [‘A Little History of Photography’] appeared over three issues of the journal Die Literarische Welt (18 and 25 September, 2 October. 1931). It included several images by the photographers discussed but none by Atget. There were two that looked like Atget’s by the photographer Germaine Krull, an acquaintance of Benjamin. It is possible that Benjamin requested Krull to shoot these images but why Atget’s were not used is unclear.

[vi] Benjamin noted the publication of Helmuth Bossert and Heinrich Guttman’s Aus der Frühzeit der Photographie. 1840-1870 (Frankfurt 1930) and discussed the images in Heinrich Schwarz’s David and Octavius Hill, Der Meister der Photographie (Leipzig, 1931). The twentieth century books he discussed included Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (Berlin 1931), August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Berlin 1929), Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist Schön (1928, Munich 1928) and the German edition of the Atget book. Note the overlap with Walker Evans’s review.

[vii] Albert Valentin, ‘Eugène Atget (1857-1927)’ Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings 1913-1940 (New York 1989) originally published in Variétés (Brussels, December 1928). Two months before Valentin’s text appeared Robert Desnos, in his belated obituary of Atget (Le Soir, September 11 1928), suggested Atget’s photographs could well be used to illustrate a republication of the original Fantômas stories. This would have been similar to the use of location photographs made by André Breton in his novel Nadja (1928).

Copyright: David Campany