Lecture 3 – The Artist with the Camera

In the lecture we looked at Atget, a photographer from the 19th century who documented his city of residence; Paris. He made photographs of buildings both externally and internally.  At the time Napoleon wanted to make Paris a grand city, so many building were destroyed and new ones erected. Many where unhappy with the process, so a commission called ‘The Art of Old Paris’ formed, whose aim was to document the buildings in a book before they where destroyed. Over the years he took over 3000 pictures, though he was heavily criticised for his use of framing, and exposure. He shot everything in the scene, not moving distracting objects. This didn’t conform with the look of perfection the commission were after, but for Aget it was important to show everything,  and often photographed the same buildings multiple times. It was an idea of nothing is permanent. Aget became one of the first photographers to show Paris as a ‘site of memory’. His genre if you will, was in-between the real and ideal.

He was also interested in people, making two books focusing on street traders and hawkers. He saw these jobs being swept away with the change in the city, therefore he documented it before it was lost. He photographed everyone, and wasn’t interested in hierarchy, to Atget they where street traders plain and simple. Another project he did was a comparison between the living quarters of the rich and poor. He would juxtapose them side by side to show the comparison.

At first we looked at Atget as a frustrated painter, who used the camera to document what he wanted rather than using paint. Also at first if you look at his images he looks although he isn’t sure of what he is doing, there is ghosting from people, and his street scenes showed no signs of anyone living there. Only once you realise the equipment he used does it become clear that he does no what he is doing, and intact what many perceived to be mistakes, could well have been intentional. He used an old camera, and slow speed plates, meaning long exposure where the only option he had. Knowing this he knew if people walked past they wouldn’t be recorded fully if at all. It Berenice Abbot, who really pushed his work to the forefront of the public eye, and continued to do so after his death.

Many photographers, have talked of the surrealist nature of Atgets photographs, but Atget commented on how they where just documents. I don’t agree, I think he know what he wished to create, Paris at the time was heavily influenced by the surrealist movement, and with doubt Atget’s work conforms to its style.  He effectively has moved from a commercial photographer, to a surrealist, to a full blown art photographer. His images didn’t change, but what was perceived by them did over the years.

What is of real interest, is Atget’s work makes Paris, look dull, and lifeless, in part due to the long exposures. When compared to Lartigue who photographed Paris at the same time, he makes it look a vibrant city, fully of interesting people and things. This was in part due to the modern equipment he was using, he created dynamic portraits of people jumping, and of the latest fashion. It goes to show that even though the photographs are of the same era and place, the two different styles make them look completely different, both showing different messages.


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