Monday, January 18, 2010

Eugene Atget and les petits métiers

Very little is known about Eugène Atget as a person. He was born on February 12, 1857 outside of Bordeaux. After completing his education, he worked as a sailor for a short time. He then became an actor, but not a successful one. After giving up acting at age forty, he became a photographer—a profession that he did (quite successfully) for the next thirty years until his death in 1927.

Untitled (rag picker), 1899-1900
NOTE: Photos in this post are for educational use only under fair rights use. Do not copy them.

Most of what we know about Atget, we know through his work. Most historians agree that Atget did not view his photos as works as "art," but rather as “documents for artists.” Atget's interest in photography coincides with one of France's more self-obsessed periods (which is really saying something, isn't it?) Perhaps because of the constant political upheaval and/or the massive urban renewal projects, the French had developed an appetite for photographic (if not actual) preservation of its architecture and culture. Depending on the interpreter's penchant for nostalgia or cynicism, Atget used photography either as a means to preserve a life that was dying before his eyes or as a means to earn a living. To be fair, the two attitudes are not mutually exclusive. In any case, Atget has become a fixture in modern histories of photography—a fact that ensures him an exalted status no matter what his intent.

In the 1920’s, Atget met Berenice Abbott who is credited for recognizing the artistic merit of his work. She often sent friends to purchase his work and she took a number of photographs of him. After his death, Abbott compiled a portfolio of his work which she eventually sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It wasn’t until Berenice Abbott sold Atget's work to the MoMA in 1968 that he gained his status as one of the masters of photography. His originality and approach to photography has influenced many photographers (including Walker Evans and Irving Penn to name two that we will cover in this course)

Joueur d’orgue, 1898-99

Atget worked for three decades on the same projects or series, including landscape documents, old Paris, art in old Paris, neighborhoods of Paris and the geography of old Paris. He very rarely photographed people. His best attempt to do so is known as the Petits Métiers series in which he photographed workers of different trades.


Magasin, avenue des Gobelins, 1925

Atget's choice of subject matter reveals a style that is at once nostalgic and contemporary in theme. Other than the "petits métiers" series, his photos gain a sense of humanism through in spite of their lack of people. The shop windows without shoppers, the empty streets, each image reveals something about how people interact with an environment that is constantly changing.

Due to his long exposures, Atget's photographs are usually characterized by a sense of diffused light. Perhaps even more noticeable on a technical level, Atget's positioning of the lens relative to the film intensified and embraced the vignetting effects that most photographers of his time tried to avoid.

Untitled (Toupee shop, Palais Royal), 1926-27

Inspiration for Students

Atget’s organization of work into series helps demonstrate the achievements that can come from the development of unified themes. As many photographers have learned, a series on a common theme often creates a more complete and compelling narrative. Another point of inspiration may be Atget's lack of artistic pretense. His work shows how a story can evolve naturally from devotion to a subject, rather than from a highly constructed premise.

Other sources of inspiration

Irving Penn, butchers

Recently, the Getty has put on a major exhibition of Irving Penn's "Small Trades" series of portraits. Mostly taken during the 1950s and '60s, the portraits represent tradespeople in New York, London, and Paris. Given Penn's work with Vogue magazine, I can't help but read a certain irony into both the locations (New York—London—Paris) and the work clothes "fashion" displayed on tradespeople.

Some links on Irving Penn:
And for the overachiever, do some searches on the work of August Sander. He falls outside of the French/German focus of this class, but is well worth a look. The Fondation Cartier in Paris just finished a show on Sander and will be getting the Getty's Irving Penn show later this year.

Your assignment
A photo essay based on the "petits métiers" theme. No less than 5 photos, but keep in mind that more photos doesn't necessarily mean a better grade. What you need to achieve is a stylistic and thematic unity that expresses your own point of view. Your best bet at achieving a strong point of view is to make deliberate choices. I recommend that you start with a concept (perhaps a loose one) in the same way you might start with a tentative thesis for a research paper. It's good to have ideas, but it is also more intellectually interesting (and honest!) to leave room for the unexpected. Just as a thesis can change or be refined as you research, your own ideas might change as you begin your photo essay. Allow time for that change. Think. Shoot. Examine. Organize. Repeat as needed.

Do your best to forget about grades and just enjoy the process. The more the project becomes something you want to do, the more rewarding it will become.

Post your project here by the end of the month. Make your photos large enough to fill the space without getting cut off. You must upload from a link rather than "from your computer" in order for Blogger to display your photo at a larger size. Do not wait until the last minute to figure this out.

I can't wait to see what you come up with.

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