Eugène Atget: Old Paris exhibition

After travelling from the Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris via Madrid and Rotterdam, Eugène Atget’s photographs of Old Paris have made it to Sydney, where it is our turn to experience their beauty.

If you’d walked down the Rue de la Parcheminerie in Paris on the morning of the 15th March, 1913, you’d have encountered the strange silhouette of a man, enveloped within the black cloak of his 18-by-24-centimetre glass plate camera, standing very still, right in the middle of the street. Eugène Atget almost always took his haunting photographs at dawn, when the streets were at their most quiet, with barely anyone around to busy the frame.

Since 1853, Paris had been paralysed in chaos. Cramped medieval streets were being methodically demolished by order of the great civic planner Baron Haussmann, to be replaced with the structured, orderly, Boulevard-driven Paris we recognise today. Atget sought to keep a record of what old Paris had looked – and felt – like, in all of its wretched, dilapidated luminosity.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) exhibition Eugène Atget: Old Paris presents Atget’s depiction of a lost place. Photographs of deserted streets reveal a silent, almost ethereal Paris visualised through the aching isolation of a man witnessing the demise of a city he cherished. Suspicious patrons stare out of windows, as if hiding from the new century; photographs of closed doors intensify the sense of not belonging. It’s this sense of “troubling emptiness” that made Atget’s photography so important for the Parisian Surrealists – indeed, an album, purchased from Atget by Man Ray in 1926, is on display in the final room of the AGNSW exhibition.

Atget cherished his anonymity and considered his photographs more “documents pour artistes” than artworks. His work is a magical, dreamlike journey through a lost and mysterious place. Despite rarely photographing people, his photography recalls humanity – ever present in the torn posters, faded signs and considered shop windows of his streets. It is this that makes Atget so much more than a documentary-driven, antiquarian photographer. As legendary art critic and photographer John Szarkowski detailed on the nature of Atget’s photographs: “Individually, they are like short beautiful sentences made of small and common words. Collectively, they are a testament to the simplicity of a genius.”

Eugene Atget: Old Paris shows at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until Sunday 4 November 2012.

Text: Freya Herring
Photographs: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales

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