Paris Itineraries: Photography by Eugene Atget. Art Gallery of Ontario. (Exhibition Review)

Article excerpt

Between 1892 and 1927, Eugene Atget created an extraordinary and enduring photographic document of the historic streets and buildings of central Paris. The exhibition "Paris Itineraries: Photography by Eugene Atget," at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), on view between February 28 and May 27, 2001, was a remarkable reconstitution of this French photographer's fin-de-sielce project. Independent Canadian curator David Harris carefully selected more than 180 images from the more than 5000 that Atget created to focus on his systematic and exhaustive approach to representing not only the streets, courtyards, parks, and buildings of le vieux Paris (pre-Revolutionary Paris), but also the spaces they framed. Harris has reinvested Atget's work with a large measure of its original documentary purpose (in contrast to the successful campaign of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Berenice Abbott to incorporate Atget into the world of fine art), while also emphasizing the spatiality of the work. [1] Through the exhibit an d catalogue -- the latter is in french only -- both photographic and urban historians can appreciate the oeuvre as well as the unique manner in which Atget's images document the spatial practices manifested in le vieux Paris. As argued by the brochure accompanying the show, Atget "approached architectural and urban photography as a progressively unfolding description of spaces." The visual argument presented by Harris does slightly manipulate viewers into thinking they are viewing an objective recreation of these spaces, but it is a very appealing manipulation, and not without merit.

Jean-Eugene Atget was born in 1857 in Libourne, France. In 1892, he quit a not very successful career in the theatre and established himself as a professional photographer in Paris. In his first few years, Atget provided documentary photographs of landscapes, buildings, and character types to academic painters in Paris as an aid in the preparation of their works. By 1897, however, he had found a new niche, specializing in detailed views of old buildings and streets in the historic quarters of the city.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the educated bourgeois of the city were experiencing a fin-de-siecle nostalgia for Paris' past life and form. In 1898, the Commission municipale du vieux-Paris was created, and historians sympathetic to the conservation of eighteenth-century architecture were hired at the Musee Carnavalet (the museum of the city of Paris where this exhibition originated in 1999). Atget took advantage of this burgeoning market and created images 'on spec' selling thousands of copies to architects, craftsmen, archaeologists, historians, and connoisseurs. He also sold more than 15,000 prints, often assembled into albums, to various cultural institutions in Paris, including the Musee Carnavalet, the Bibliotheque nationale, the Musee du sculpture comparee the Ecole des beaux-arts, and the Musee des arts decoratifs. However, his sales fell dramatically as a result of World War One, as Paris emerged as a different and decidedly modern city more concerned with moving forward than looking back. N onetheless, after selling more than 2,000 of his negatives to the Musee des beaux-arts in 1920, Atget continued to photograph the city, creating new series on the apartment buildings, courtyards, and parks of Paris. He also returned to places he had photographed earlier, restocking his inventory and documenting the changes wrought on the old fabric of the city during his career. After his death in 1927, his estate donated 2,000 of his negatives to the Administration des monuments et des sites historiques and sold the remaining images to photographer Berenice Abbott in 1928. [2]

The exhibition at the AGO was divided into two sections, the first dealing with Atget's photography of the urban typologies of hotels particuliers and courtyards, streets and intersections, and quays: the second part addressing Atget's frequent return to re-photograph sites that may have changed over the years, as well as his extensive record of the church of Saint Severin and the surrounding area between 1898 and 1923. …