Text Excerpt from The early photographic work of Eugene Atget: 1892 – 1902
By Eun Young Jeong, Michigan State University
Very little is known about Atget’s early life. He kept no diary or other personal records. The information that has been published has become somewhat mythological due to a lack of primary source material. The biographical material presented here is taken from three major biographies of Atget as well as from the memories of Andre Calmettes, his lifelong friend.
Scholars widely agree that Atget was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857. Both his parents died when he was young, and his maternal grandparents in Bordeaux raised him.
We also know very little about Atget’s formal education. We do know that as a young man, Atget was employed as a sailor. After several voyages, Atget decided to pursue a career as an actor, and he moved to Paris in 1878 to apply to the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique et de Declamation, the country’s foremost acting school.
The Conservatoire was the only institution of its kind in France. Entrance was fiercely competitive, and aspirants prepared for their eventual education there with many years of preliminary study and private tutelage. Some uncertainty surrounds the beginning of Atget’s acting career since there is no record of any dramatic education or experience before. Atget’s physical appearance, according to Maria Morris, did not fit the “dramatic style.”
“He had not been blessed with noble features and statuesque physique of a leading man. He was short (about 5 feet 5 inches), rather squarely built, and had dark hair and small grey eyes. With a prominent nose, strong cleft chin, long upper lip, and straight, severe mouth, his was not a handsome face for glamorous roles; the features were too large and discordant, and they are ruled by a contracted intensity of will.”
Atget was drafted into the military in 1878. During this period he was working as well as attending a conservatory. Atget’s decision to study there, despite the above facts, suggests his strong ambition and determination to be an actor. The result of his first examination also reflects his commitment to acting. His instructor Edmond Got described Atget’s performance: ‘intelligent, and with a really bizarre, serious way of playing comedy…’
Atget continued to split his time between soldiering and acting, but according to Maria Morris, his military obligations prevented him from keeping up with his studies and he was expelled from school in 1881. Discharged from the military in 1882, he spent the remainder of the decade touring the provinces with itinerant acting troupes. This period of his life is not well documented. Andre Calmettes, who met Atget during this time described the period this way:
‘…I was to meet Atget, in Paris, when he was no longer a sailor but an actor. After having appeared in the provincial theaters, Atget played dramatic roles in the suburbs of Paris; as he had rather hard features, he was given unflattering roles – called ‘third roles’. Such was his profession for a certain number of years, and it was during that time that he met the woman who was to become his ‘amie,’ who lived with him until her death a year before his own. Soon the theatre offered them fewer and fewer resources so that Atget and his companion established themselves in Paris, where his small saving were soon gone, and he was obliged to look for another occupation.’
Some scholars suggest that Atget’s romanticism reflected in his works appears to originate in this early experience as an actor. For example, Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyeowitz claim that Atget’s romantic penchant may have developed under the influence of the Romantic Comedies he was involved in until he was forty years old. For these scholars, Atget’s romantic penchant is one of the key artistic elements of his photographs. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak also believes there is a relationship between Atget’s acting career and his photography. Szegedy-Maszak’s reasoning behind his conclusion that Atget’s photography reflects his acting career comes from his observation that Atget’s street scenes and his interior views share characteristics with theatrical sets. According to Szegedy-Maszak, the scenes captured in Atget’s photographs “become stage sets that await the animating presence of the actors.”
Despite the shared visual characteristics of theatres and Atget’s photographs, it is difficult to claim that the origin of Atget’s romanticism lay in his acting experience. At the time that Atget was acting, French theater was not particularly romantic. We cannot be sure that Westerbeck and Meyerowitz were correct in their assumptions that Atget played in Romantic Comedies since French theater was then a process of transition away from Romanticism and toward Realism. It seems more likely that Atget was predisposed to a Romantic penchant as his early decision to be an actor suggests, that he retained his taste for the theater after he ended his acting career. He referred to himself as a ‘dramatic artist’ until 1912, the year he took up the designation of ‘author-publisher of a photographic anthology of Old Paris.’ From 1904 to 1913 he gave lectures on the theater in the popular universities, at the House of the People, the Socialist Cooperative, and the School Sciences.
Around 1888, Atget suddenly converted from actor to photographer. We do not know how, when or where Atget learned to make photographs. James Borcoman thinks that two particular events that occurred at the beginning of Atget’s stay in Paris had a major impact on him. The first was the Exposition Universelle of 1878 and the second, a series of free public lectures on photography. Atget’s attendance at either of these events is undocumented, so it is difficult to prove an impact on Atget or to use these events to explain his sudden change of vocation.
According to Andre Calmette, Atget made several attempts to be a painter before he turned to photography. “We had,” Calmette reminisced, “both of us, a great interest in painting and we knew many painters.” Contradicting this memory, Maria Morris, citing the interview with Valentine Compagnon, Atget’s mistress, claimed that Atget’s interest in painting was not preliminary to his interest in photography, but was concurrent with it. The only Atget painting known today is of trees. Considering Morris’s descriptions, all four painting demonstrate different techniques. She goes on to suggest that his painting grew alongside his photography of trees as part of an ongoing investigation of forms and their pictorial representation. We have no way of knowing if Atget wanted to be a professional painter before he became a photographer, but it is important to note that he began his photographic career within the context of his interest in painting.
Around 1890-91, Atget opened a studio, ‘Documents pour artists,’ at 31 Rue Campagne Premiere and became a commercial photographer for artists. According to Maria Morris, Atget took most of his photographs on his own initiative. His business was based on photographing subjects with broad appeal and on selling the individual prints himself.
At this point it will be helpful to understand Atget’s work by examining the equipment and techniques that he used. After visiting Atget’s bedroom, Berenice Abbott described his equipment:
“His equipment consisted of a simple 18 x 24 cm view camera, with almost none of the present-day adjustments… Atget used glass plates. They were ‘plaque au gelatine-bromire d’argent’ made by the Brothers Lumiere… The box was marked ‘extra rapides,’ but actually the emulsion must have been fairly slow… As for accessories, he certainly did not use and exposure meter. At most, he made use of a simple coefficient table with mathematical calculations. But it is more likely that he judged exposure by his vast experience with light conditions, subject matter, and type of plate emulsion. His negatives seem (extremely dense, which suited) the gold (toned) chloride paper of his time. Because the emulsion was non-color sensitive, he never used filters… Atget made practice of closing down (the lens) to a very small aperture, he told me, and giving long exposures. Probably this was to f/64. Only when he photographed people in the series ‘Petits Metiers’ and ‘Scenes de la Rue’ did he open up the diaphragm and focus critically on the center of interest, leaving the background out of focus.”
Atget never abandoned his first equipment, carrying it all over Paris and its suburbs. The technique for making negatives and prints that Atget initially used remained constant throughout his life.
Regarding early clients who hired Atget for the purpose of documenting images to use as reference for painting, only four painters are known. Without further information, Atget’s relationships with his clients and whether or not his pictures affected their work is hard to assess.
In 1897, Atget participated in an enterprise to preserve images of le vieux Paris set by the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1889. He sold one hundered photographs of Old Paris to the institution and he worked as a specialist of the type. We don’t know the way in which he acquired the public commission, but it is clear that this incident provided Atget a critical impetus for developing his photographic career.
Atget’s business came to a virtual halt during World War I, but he managed to continue his practice after the war. After the death of his mistress in 1926, Atget produced very little work. Weakened by a spartan diet that consisted exclusively of bread, milk and sugar, he died in 1927 at the age of seventy.
The amount of factual information we have about each period in Atget’s life varies and the facts we have do not equally illuminatte all aspects of his character. However, we do know that Atget’s early photographic career defined his specific interests and needs, and it determined the direction of his future career. During the remaining years of his life, these experiences would serve him well: no matter what he produced after 1902, its origin can be traced – both stylistically and iconographically – to his early work.
ASX CHANNEL: EUGENE ATGET