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Walkabout: 1897-1927, 2022

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Hôtel de Sens, rue de l'Hôtel de Ville, Paris, early 1900s

In 1978, John Szarkowski posited two kinds of photographers: those “who believe that all art is concerned with self-expression and those who see it as a means of exploration.” Mirrors and Windows. Romanticism and Realism. Conceptual and Empirical. A portrait of the artist and a picture of the world. Minor White and Robert Frank.

As with all there-are-two-kinds-of-people pronouncements, the dichotomy underestimates our enduring capacity for self-contradiction. Szarkowski admits as much: “The intention of this analysis has not been to divide photography into two parts. On the contrary, it has been to suggest a continuum, a single axis with two poles.”

Still, he makes one assertion that vexes me: He elects Eugène Atget as patron saint of the Robert Frank, exploratory strand. (Alfred Stieglitz gets the nod for the Minor White, expressionist school.)

Atget himself insisted that his photographs were “simply documents I make.” Indeed, starting in the late 1880s, he made his living by marketing them as documents pour artistes to a clientele that included painters, stage designers, architects, historians, and the like. Utrillo, Braque, and Derain were counted among his customers as were the Bibliothèque National and a number of other august institutions.

Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, 1924

Then, about a decade into the profession, he set out to record what remained of the old city of Paris—its narrow streets and private courtyards—before modernization cleaned it all up. What Atget seems to have had in mind was a salvation project: “For more than 20 years,” he wrote, “by my own work and personal initiative, I have gathered from all the old streets of Vieux Paris photographic plates, 18x4 format, artistic documents of the beautiful civic architecture of the 16th to 19th century: the old hotels, historic or curious houses, beautiful facades, beautiful doors, beautiful woodwork, door knockers, old fountains. This vast artistic and documentary collection is today complete. I can truthfully say that I possess all of Vieux Paris.”

His great champion, Berenice Abbott drew on his example for Changing New York (1929-39), her own record of a great city. A practitioner of the Windows school of photography, she disapproved of what she termed the “superpictorialist school” of Stieglitz and company. Of Stiegltiz’ work, she said, it “was spiked with mystical and subjective overtones, with fluent intellectualities … used to bewilder and impress laymen.”

“Atget,” on the other hand, “was not aesthetic. Atget seems to have had a dominating passion that drove him to fix life permanently,” she wrote.

Yet, through those very images, Atget became a darling of the Surrealist set, not a group especially known for its dedication to strict documentary truth. Man Ray, a neighbor on the rue Campagne-Première, reproduced Atget’s photographs in two 1926 issues of La révolution surréaliste, the house organ of the Surrealist movement. That same year, he bought 40 images from the old man and bound them into an album.

A dedicated avant-gardist, Man Ray was more than a little condescending toward Atget: “I don’t want to make any mystery out of Atget at all,” he said. He was “a very simple man, almost naïve, like a Sunday painter, you might say.”

Yet there are those 40 pictures. As a group, they’re fairly characteristic of Atget’s work: We get courtyards and streets, the shanty towns on the city’s outskirts and the circus fairground, prostitutes and ragpickers, and 10 of shop window displays, most of them populated by mannequins shilling the fashions of the moment. As with all of Atget’s work, these are “straight” photographs, recording what was before the camera’s lens and printed as delivered in the negative. So, yes, they would qualify as one of Szarkowski’s Windows: documents of the world as-is.

And, no, they don’t.

The streets of Philadelphia

Philadelphia, where I live, is an infant by Parisian standards: Where the Romans settled on the Left Bank in 52 BCE, the first Europeans—Swedes and Dutch—arrived in Philly 16 centuries later. William Penn founded the city proper in 1682.

By U.S. standards, though, Philadelphia is up there. Walk the city and you walk through a palimpsest. In my neighborhood, colonial-era houses back on industrial-era factory sites, and the 1906 parish school that educated generations of Polish kids has been converted to condominiums. As has the 1905 synagogue built to serve the neighborhood’s Hasidic community. A few blocks south, the Sparks Shot Tower produced ammunition for the War of 1812; today, it towers over the local playground and rec center.

Not exactly the l’Ile Saint-Louis, but still—old. To walk through older cities brings home just how a place is never truly fixed and how the past lingers on in the present-day. So, walking in Philly, I amuse myself sometimes in wondering how Atget might have framed my city. As I conduct these modest thought experiments, I can, every now and then, frame fleeting scenes from a century or two before.

But it isn’t all that easy to crop out the present. As it happens, all manner of contemporaneous events—facts on the ground like automobiles zipping through the streets and people dressed up in the latest fashions—intrude. Because the present—now—doesn't disappear.

Yet that is precisely the goal Atget set out for himself: “I can truthfully say that I possess all of Vieux Paris.”

There is no now
Shop display of corsets
Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, 1921

However much he may have condescended to Atget, Man Ray saw “a little Dada or surrealist quality” in the pictures he bought off the old photographer. Those 40 photographs—as well as a whole slew of others Man Ray passed over—might fit nicely into the Surrealist canon. For so much of what transpires before Atget’s lens seems to exist in a dream state.

For starters, his shop window people seem to inhabit another realm where time has been stilled. A child reaches out, perpetually, to the world on the other side of her glass cage and four women are frozen in an eternal reunion. Another—Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets—is particularly tricky: On the one hand, it’s just a lingerie shop; on the other, it’s a slaughterhouse with the six corseted torsos hanging up in the display window, like Bluebeard’s wives.

In fact, all of Atget's Paris is uncanny: His photographs suggest another city hidden within the brick-and-mortar Paris, an otherworldly city, a shadow city where the mannequins are always watching, the streets are forever empty, and the grand stairways lead to the unknown.

The emptiness was, in part, the inevitable consequence of his equipment: a large-format camera and glass-plate negatives, which meant long exposure times. But technical constraints weren’t at the heart of the matter, for even after the introduction of the handheld camera, Atget stuck with the view camera.

Corner at the rue de Seine in Paris
Coin, rue de Seine, 1921

No, Atget chose the past. He went out in the early morning hours—before the streets filled up with pedestrians—and concentrated on the old quarters of the city. Browsing through Atget’s work, you come across very few photographs that speak to the contemporary life of the city: no hint of World War I, no whisper of jazz, no trace of Picasso or Cocteau or Hemingway. There is no now there. As Walter Benjamin observed, Atget sought out “the forgotten and the forsaken.”

How, I wonder, can this photographer be an all-in Windows guy when the city he recorded was a city that no longer existed at the time he recorded it? Using an antique camera and a melancholic sensibility, Atget willed a vanished city into empirical fact. This quixotic quest for a past world is so fundamentally Romantic that I can’t quite see the resulting images as being lodged firmly in the Realist camp.

So, no, they don’t quite make the grade as one of Szarkowski’s Windows. Rather, they flirt with Mirror status: documents of the world as-Atget-wished-it-to-be.

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