Sunday, January 14, 2007


Parc de Sceaux, mars, 7 h. matin 1925

Every now and then I'd like to throw one of my favourite photographers into the mix here - in this case, with two of my all time favourite photographs as well (If ever I win the lottery, I'll be hunting at least one of these two down - so Paris, if you're reading this and looking for a present for my upcoming birthday....).

The number one photographer for me has to be Atget - I'll be surprised if I ever tire of coming back to his work. He is probably one of the most important photographers in the history of the medium as well as the forerunner of modern photography. And yet every now and then I'm surprised by how many photographers either haven't even heard of him or are only vaguely aware of his work.

There's so much I could say about Atget, but for now I'll leave it to John Szarkowski from the introduction to The Work of Atget:

Atget, pointing

As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person-a mute Virgil of the corporeal world-who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or astonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from the pattern created by the pointer...

To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers-men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition...

In his early work, Atget, like most intelligent beginners, tried many things. Many of his early pictures attempt a direct reportage of ephemeral contemporary life: groups of people at work or play, the bustle of the street, events of topical interest, etc. Most of these pictures seem merely circumstantial, and insufficiently formed, but a few succeed very well. These successes, to a photographer of appropriate temperament, would have been adequate encouragement; this line of exploration could only have been profitably pursued, preferably with one of the splendid new hand cameras rather than the ponderous and refractory stand camera that Atget used. There was, however, an opposing strain in Atget's early work which-we must assume-pleased him more. These pictures are still, simple and poised, and concern themselves not with reportage but with history. Very early in his career Atget stopped trying to catch the world unaware....

...The intensity of Atget's attention might be measured by the frequency with which he returned to certain families of subject matter. He loved dooryards, with their climbing vines, window boxes, caged canaries, and worn stone doorsteps; and courts with neighborhood wells in them, immemorial centers of sociability, news, and contention. Atget's pictures describe such places with a sharp but tactful scrutiny. They define a meeting ground between domestic and civil life, the innermost plane of the private person's public face.

Tavern, the Lapin Agile, rue des Saules 1926

Among the good books on Atget - and there are many - would be (click for a link):


paulraphael said...

Another comment by Szarkowsky (paraphrased ...)

"If the Modern were burning down and I could only save one photograph by each photographer, I'd labor over which Weston, Which Cartier Bresson etc.. to save. But with Atget it would be easy: I'd just grab whichever one's on top."

tim atherton said...

I like it!