Eugène Atget: Father of Street Photography?

Ah, the flâneur—the word has gone out of fashion, but this mainstay of 19th-century Parisian culture has been embedded into our collective unconscious as the archetypical artiste. Meaning “saunterer,” more or less, a flâneur is an aimless wanderer, a gourmand equally of the small human dramas playing themselves out daily as of the city-sets themselves in which they transpire. Originally one found more overlap between flâneurs and  writers or painters, but photography developed as a naturally complementary activity as soon as it was technically able. (What photographer wouldn’t like to take an afternoon sauntering to find subjects?)

Although he wasn’t the first to take photography out of the studio and into the wild rush of chance—Charles Nègre being a notable earlier example—Eugène Atget was the first photographer to provide coherent groundwork for what would later become known as “street photography.” In 1897, he undertook his “Old Paris Series”—an urgent attempt to document Paris as it was, while buildings were being demolished and modernized all around.

Cour, 7 rue de Valence

Though Atget worked as a commercial photographer, his self-appointed undertaking as visual historian of a vanishing Paris remained a personal passion project until it was discovered by an assistant, Berenice Abbott, shortly before his death in 1927. Abbott went on to become a top-tier photographer in her own right, known for her portraits (like this one of James Joyce) and her own street photography (most notably her similar project documenting a rapidly-modernizing New York City), and it was through her efforts that a large collection of Atget’s negatives were published. Enhanced by the poetic assonance of their provenance (a place lost to time as seen by a man recently lost to time), this archive of 10,000 negatives was incendiary.

Cabaret de l’Enfer entrance

“A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb but eloquent.” – Eugène Atget

Rue Asselin

He took many pictures of people, especially those at the outskirts of society, but it was always Paris that was his true subject. The simple, even the banal, drew his lens again and again, specifically because no one else was there to preserve it. And when fashion and society move on, what should become of the undocumented everyday of the untold thousands? His work would be carried on in spirit by other Frenchmen (e.g. Henri Cartier-Bresson), others associated with the abstract and surreal (e.g. Aaron Siskind), and even others who remained unknown until after their deaths (e.g. Vivian Maier). And today?

Vannier

Today, with a fairly high-quality camera in every pocket and extremely high-quality equipment more accessible and compact than it has ever been, we are in an age of unprecedented documentation. The number of meals posted to Instagram, the number of storefronts photographed for review websites, and even photo-augmented street maps would probably make old Atget weep with envy-tinged joy. Of course, the documentary intent of his photography was only half of its appeal.

Looking at his photos distracts you as a hand that should be long-dead stretches out, curled nails gripping your heart with atrophied desperation. The empty streets and candidly-captured people seem to know their fate, and they know that you know it will be yours, too.

Au Port Salut, Cabaret Rue des Fosses St. Jacques, Cinquième Arrondissement

Atget used an already-outdated large format wood-frame/bellows camera with 8×10 glass plates, and this contributed a great deal to the je ne sais quois that made his photos timeless, but at the end of the day, I think, he just had a great eye for a great subject.

All photos above by Eugène Atget, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Your turn!

Your assignment is to take whatever camera you’ve got right now and get out there! “Street photography” doesn’t have to include the street itself, nor even be in the city. (Think of the proverbial “man in the street.”) Take a moment to shake off the weight of what you’re used to and see things around you as someone from 3018 might. What would be interesting? What is emblematic of the time and place that you are uniquely qualified to understand? Try to honor the least of things around yourself, and you may be surprised at the results.

Hungry for more?

The brief post above barely scratches the asphalt of street photography. If you connected with these photos or found the story interesting, then you’ll love our upcoming workshop on The History of Street Photography! You’ll start with a comprehensive historical lecture on May 31st by the illustrious Brian Rabin (see photos below), starting with Atget and following this conceptual path through the last 100 years.

Photo by Brian Rabin.

Fully saturated, you’ll get a couple days to let the inspiration seep into your pores before embarking on a Saturday evening photo walk down the 16th Street mall, starting on Colfax Avenue and culminating in an opportunity to photograph the annual Chalk Art Festival in Larimer Square until 8:00 PM or so, when class will adjourn to the Wynkoop Brewing Company for high-level discussion over pizza and beer (for those inclined).

Yes, street photography can be colorful, too! Photo by Brian Rabin.

It’s sure to be a blast. Click here to register or for more information, and tell me about your experiences with street photography in the comments!

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