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Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris
Text by Benjamin Weiss.
Atget's charming postcard portraits of Paris tradespeople were his only publications during his lifetime
Few places on Earth have been as lovingly, almost fanatically, documented as Paris. Despite extraordinary growth and change, the Paris of the world’s imagination is still, to a remarkable degree, the Paris of the turn of the 20th century—the Paris captured by Eugène Atget.
The postcards in this book, which were more or less Atget’s only publications during his lifetime, were created near the beginning of his career, long before he was “discovered” in the 1920s and raised to the status of the poetic chronicler of the fragility of time and place. This postcard series is atypical of his later work and its exact origins remain something of a mystery. Its images, which depict Paris’ “little trades,” were meant to capture the ephemeral color of life. In them, Atget presents the market stands, the odd jobs, the cobbled-together shops and the informal entertainment that gave Paris its piquancy and eternally renewing liveliness. This book presents the cards in sequence, along with an introduction that explains Atget’s participation in his own period’s photographic trends and his influence on later photography. With exquisitely reproduced images and elegantly translated captions, Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris provides a peek at a disappearing way of life, and at Atget before he was Atget.
Eugène Atget (1857–1927) was a French photographer whose photographs of the narrow streets, parks, shop windows and characters of Paris and its peripheral areas blend documentary straightforwardness with an undeniable poetic vision. Near the end of his lifetime, Atget came to the attention of Man Ray and Berenice Abbott and their avant-garde circle, becoming a source of inspiration for the Surrealists in Paris.
Featured image is reproduced from 'Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris'
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FROM THE BOOKExcerpt from “Atget Before Atget” by Benjamin Weiss
That imaginary Paris is to no small degree the work of Eugène Atget, whose photographs of the city have been reproduced and imitated almost to the point of cliché. Yet despite the near-complete identification of Atget with the city, the photographer was not a Parisian by birth, having come into the world in the town of Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857. After he failed to gain entrance to a military academy and spent an unhappy few years as a sailor, Atget moved to the capital in the late 1870s to attend the national conservatory for dramatic arts. He planned to be an actor, but like many aspiring thespians, his plans changed. He dropped out of school without a degree and washed out on the stage. Eventually, in the 1880s, Atget took up photography, and, in that fitful way a hobby can slowly transform itself into a career, he became a fully professional photographer over the course of the 1890s.
Much of Atget’s early work is difficult to trace, for he was a professional in the truest sense, selling photos of artworks and city scenes to other artists, who presumably used the images as a quick handmaiden to their own work. Yet Atget had grander ambitions as well. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, he began a project to make a systematic record of “old” Paris, a city that he saw as slipping away under the pressure of new ways. As he worked his way across the inner quarters of the city, capturing quiet street corners and old-fashioned shop windows, domestic interiors and courtyards, his photos came to the attention of libraries, including the Bibliothèque nationale and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.
Like Atget, those institutions sought to preserve a visual record of a city that seemed in the process of changing beyond recognition. Beginning around 1900, they acquired large sets of Atget’s images, which the photographer himself arranged into albums organized by category, such as Interiors, Transport, Trades, Stores, and Markets. The project was, in essence, a taxonomy of the city. Perhaps reflecting that documentary impulse, the images in these albums often have a dispassionate and almost eerie stillness, not least because they are nearly always unpopulated. Atget seemed to prefer Paris without the restless humans who were at the same time responsible for the very existence of the city he clearly loved and the source of the change he just as clearly regretted.
FROM THE ARTBOOK BLOG
CORY REYNOLDS | DATE 7/7/2017
Captioned “Flowers for sale — Two bunches for three sous,” this hand-colored, turn-of-the-century collotype postcard by Eugène Atget is reproduced from Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris, just out from MFA Publications. Wandering street vendors often carried their wares in baskets, which is why they were sometimes called marchands au panier, or basket sellers. "The gentle tone and overall dispassion that govern the series mean that Atget’s subjects are neither specimens nor freaks," Benjamin Weiss writes. "Instead, they appear to stand for a larger civic culture and experience. The entire project seems to be an essay about life in the city." continue to blog
FROM THE ARTBOOK BLOG
CORY REYNOLDS | DATE 7/8/2017
Reproduced from MFA Publications’ extraordinarily charming new book, Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris, this turn-of-the-century postcard was mailed in 1905. It is captioned, “Cutting cats, tails, and ears. Here’s the shearer.” This was the call of the tradesman who docked pets’ tails, cropped their ears and neutered cats and dogs. This beast-grooming pop-up shop appears to be operating along the undeveloped banks of the Seine. In the hot-seat, a goat or sheep with hooves akimbo. continue to blog