The Fondation HCB presents a remarkable set of prints by Eugène Atget, whose poetic documentary works have left their mark on the medium’s history
This exhibition is the fruit of long research efforts jointly undertaken by the two institutions throughout the musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris’ collections. The result is an outstanding presentation of the œuvre of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), a unique figure and photography pioneer.
Above all an artisan, Atget’s prolific output of photographs was intended for artists and lovers of the old Paris; he rose to fame posthumously. A forerunner of modernity is seen in his work by art critics and photographers, among them Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose early work sought to imitate Atget.
First acknowledged in the United States and by the French surrealist scene before finding acclaim with succeeding generations of photographers, Atget still exerts unprecedented influence in the 21st century, though the reception of his work remains mixed. Bearing a view camera and glass plates, he often captured his subject at dawn. For almost thirty years, he sought to make a collection of the Paris of his time. He also explored city limits, what is known as “the zone”. Today, his images of nearly‑deserted streets, storefronts, and courtyards evidence urban change at the turn of the 20th century. Beyond its documentary aspects, Atget’s photography expresses a deep aesthetic sensibility, illustrating the incalculable contribution he made to the medium. As Paris changed, Atget’s work method evolved accordingly, becoming more and more sensitive to the light and to atmospheric effects. This devotion to detail (using a modest subject matter), in contrast to the triumphant pictorialism of the time, is also singularly modern, allowing a notion of pleasure to surface—one which is rarely mentioned in reference to Atget.
From the most classical architecture to the most remote courtyards, Atget, more interested in the city, obsessively depicted a Paris marked by history, offering his prints to painters and libraries. Characters that show up in the frame blend into the background.
Atget said little to nothing about his own work. Reported statements served to define his project as essentially documentary, but it was his direct, poetic approach that fascinated many of his contemporaries. This produced a contradictory commentary on his unusual œuvre.
The exhibition is organized by the musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris, Paris-Musées, and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris houses a collection of over 9,000 prints by Atget, the largest archive on the photographer. The exhibition Eugène Atget – Voir Paris presents a selection of around 150 of the artist’s original prints.
Accompanying the exhibition is a book entitled Atget – Voir Paris, published by Atelier EXB.
Anne de Mondenard, Head of the Photography and Digital Images Department, musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris
Agnès Sire, Artistic director, Fondation HCB
About the Author
Eugène Atget was born in Libourne, France in 1857. He gave up a career as an actor and took up photography starting in 1888. He was self-taught. In 1890, he began producing material for use by artists: shots of plants, landscapes, and diverse objects. In 1897, he started to take photographs of the Paris of his time systematically, attentive to scenes of urban life, architectural detail, and the capital’s topography.
Towards the end of his life, he met Man Ray’s assistant, Berenice Abbott, who took two portraits of him. He died in Paris in 1927. Abbott learned of his death just as she was planning to offer him the portraits. Along with gallerist Julien Levy and Atget’s executor, André Calmettes, Abbott aided in rescuing Atget’s studio archive, the recognition of his work through various publications, and the admission of the Abbott/Levy collection to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection in 1968.
EUGÈNE ATGET: Voir Paris
17 NOVEMBER 2020 – 21 FEBRUARY 2021
FONDATION HCB (PARIS)
Hardcover: 224 pages, 146 black-and-white photographs
Publisher: Atelier EXB / Éditions Xavier Barral (2021)
Texts by: Peter Galassi, New York MoMA’s chief curator of Photography from 1991 through 2011; Anne de Mondenard, Head of the Photography and Digital Images Department, musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris; Agnès Sire, Artistic director, Fondation HCB
Size: 8.26 x 10.2 inches