By Alexander Robinson
Crediting Eugène Atget as the father of documentary photography is a little naïve, for the work of Atget goes beyond that which is visible in his photographs. The significance of Atget’s work is in what he chooses to exclude in his depiction of Paris. The title of the exhibition, Eugène Atget: Old Paris refers to Baron Haussmann’s development of Paris in the latter half of the 19th Century. As a photographer, Atget attempted to capture and archive a time and a place before it disappeared into the annals of history. Our contemporary notion of documentary photography comes from what Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’. But Atget’s work is not concerned with a decisive moment, as much as it is concerned with temporal transcendence. His photography is closer to poetry than documentary, and it is in this context that it is best perceived.
It is the absence of human subjects that often conveys Eugène Atget’s photography as surreal. For this very reason, a group of young Parisian artists in the 1920s were inspired by his work and the very possibilities offered by photography as a surrealist medium. We see the deserted streets of Paris bathed in the luminous glow of dawn. We see disfigured human faces, discombobulated reflections of those who witnessed this wizard’s craft. Atget asserts himself as the master of the photographic medium, manipulating the camera to suit his artistic intentions. Even the playfulness with which his own presence is subtly communicated by the leg of the tripod, reflected in the mirror of a bourgeois interior.
Atget was capable of seeing the distinction between reality and its photographic representation; what the late John Szarkowski called the difference between the object and the subject. He was aware of the artistic potential of a medium whose very existence was already the slave of modernism. With infinite technical reproducibility and the creation of smaller cameras and faster films, Atget chose to work with obsolete equipment and printing processes. His aesthetic was more in accordance with photography’s founding fathers than the avant-garde. From this comes a certain sense of nostalgia for a time and a place lost with the development of modern society. A sense of nostalgia for a type of photography lost with the development of technology.
For many visitors, this exhibition will be the discovery of Atget, whose albumen prints are appearing in Australia for the first time. Ansel Adams once described that the charm of Atget was his ‘equitable and intimate point of view’. It is this intimacy that makes the work of Atget so appealing: primarily because of the small print size you are invited into the pictures to look closer and examine the details. The significance of the original work of art is particularly pertinent in regard to photography. Furthermore, in the digital age of the 21st century where the photographic print is in decline, we have become accustomed to viewing photography online. How refreshing it is to see the old master in all his glory.