Sunday, April 08, 2007

Atget in the Zone


While I adore Atget's photographs of trees and derelict parcs, and his fascinating proto-surrealist pictures of shop windows have been inherited and appropriated by almost every street photographer since, his photographs of the Zone Militaire surrounding Paris are some of his most intriguing. Walls and fortifications, worn pathways, rag pickers homes, illegal cafes and gathering places.



From a review in the NY Times by Sarah Boxer

From 1910 to 1913, Atget, who made many of what he called ''documents'' to sell to architects, stonemasons, antiquarians and sign makers, tried something different, something verging on the political. He hauled his wooden camera to the city's outskirts. The photographs he took there make up his two outsider albums: the ''Zoniers'' album, pictures of ragpickers and their homes and yards in the ''zone militaire,'' and the ''Fortifications de Paris'' album, pictures of the ramparts lining the city....


Take one of Atget's photographs of a ragpicker's digs at the Porte d'Ivry. There are baskets, wheelbarrows, pots and rags as far as the eye can see. Another picture, taken elsewhere, on the Boulevard Masséna, is at first glance indistinguishable from the first. But if you look closely you can also find a few broken-down chairs and, thankfully, in the foreground, a little white figurine, a tiny dancer with her hands raised seductively behind her head. Ducking behind a post, she points the way to a different world. In this place, she seems to say, it takes time for the eyes to adjust. Just follow me.



And the fortifications? In one sense, they are easier on the eyes. The fences and rampart walls are like train tracks moving off into the distance telling the eyes where to go. But location is still a problem. At the vanishing point of one fortification fence, in a blaze of white light, stand three figures. It is hard to tell which side of the fence they are on, within the city's borders or without. And how does this photograph, taken at 18-20 Boulevard Masséna, relate to Atget's picture taken at 18-20 Impasse Masséna, a dead end? It seems to show the other side of the fence, with a forlorn liquor store and a cat posing neatly in the yard. Did the men in the first picture beckon Atget to take a picture of their store?

And why did Atget spend so much time photographing what looks like a factory, La Bièvre, at the Porte d'Italie? The ''Fortifications'' album has four different views of it. The gallery has two of these. One shows two blurry trees standing like sentries to the left of the factory, which has slatted shutters on its top level and a half-timbered ground floor, all resting on stilts planted in a muddy river. A more distant view of the same site melds the two trees together, but gives some prominence to several white barrels standing in the river.

Why did Atget focus on this particular building? Maybe just because it was there. Or maybe it was, as Ms. Nesbit writes in the gallery guide, to ''let a chaos have its points.''

There is also an article by Molly Nesbit, author of the important book Atget's Seven Albums:

It was not simple to find words for the rags, the scraps, the garbage that began to arrive in the modern picture around 1912. Apollinaire, looking at the pasted papers of his friends Picasso and Braque, told the reader of his new book on Cubism that "mosaicists paint with marble or colored wood. There is mention of an Italian artist who painted with excrement; during the French Revolution blood served somebody as paint. You may paint with whatever material you please, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candelabra, pieces of oil cloth, collars, painted paper, newspapers," It was all of it "less sweetness than plainness," he explained, for in modern art one does not choose. But someone else has chosen. Walter Benjamin, looking over much the same material in the pictures of Schwitters, saw the choice to be radical, politically speaking. And Atget? Atget did not take the scraps so literally into his pictures; rather, he chose to photograph them. His way of photographing involved the pursuit of something that initially might be called clarity....


...He showed the ragpickers at home, which was also at work, living with the things they had gathered and were sorting down, preparing the saleable materials for the cycles of resale, or weaving baskets on the side. His pictures did not move to close. The ragpickers had been physically pushed to the limit of the city, to the flats of the old fortifications that encircled Paris then. Out of sight, beneath mind, the ragpickers lived beyond the rhythms of the city’s modern life, eking a living from its waste and taking their distance. Atget let that distance expand in his pictures. He showed he approved it. Theirs was a life and a labor that could not by summarized, triumphantly or synthetically, by a form. It had to be shown as open and closed, surface and substance, the gist of the substance unknowable finally, always revolting, running away.

And despite all the anti-war and left wing influences that can be detected in this work of Atget's, there is still a strong focus in the Zone Militaire of the persistence of nature. As someone pointed out: "perhaps he just liked trees"


8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tim,
I had the great lucky a number of years ago of meeting Mr. Peter Powell (91 at the time) who knew Atget in Paris. The Powells Gretchan & Peter were very wealthy Vanty Fair photographers (worth looking up, they taught Bresson photography).They had a studio in the same building as Man Ray and knew Atget well.Mr. Powell had an interesting variant on a well know story.
When Man Ray published Atget's photos in " La Revolution Surrealiste", the story goes that Atget told Man Ray he should not of published them in as art since they were just documents. Powell saw Atget close to that meeting and Atget said to Powell that he was sorry his work had been publishe with such " unserious artists " that his photos aspired to greater things.
It give you a totally different sebse of Atgets view of his work.

I love the "Zone" phots too. They were a guide for me in Berlin.

John Gossage

tim atherton said...

Yes,

i think the "real" Atget can be found somewhere between the Szarkoski/Homburg view and the Nesbit view - but exactly where leaves plenty of room for intrigue

Anonymous said...

John,

Did Mr Powell tell you any other stories about Atget? Fascinating stuff!

Dylan

Anonymous said...

Dylan,

Mr. Powell was 91 as I said, and my friends who got us together said that it was a shame I did get to talk to him a few years earlier, since he remembered much more. I could bring up the Man Ray story for him since I knew about it. But other unprompted stories were much harder.
I brought the 1930 Atget with me to our lunch, and he identified things he remembered.The stairs to Atgets apartments, his work room, etc. But the best answer of all, but most liky the least helpful was the first question I asked him.
Mr. Powell, what did you and Atget talk about? Powell put his head back, almost to tilt to the past, and said " Women of course, that is what we all talked about"

JG

Menlo Bob said...

Wish I could fall in love with Atget's work. He seems deserving. But it's such an effort to find worthyness.

tim atherton said...

Bob,

I think someone mentioned earlier, John Szarkowski was asked how he would decide which pictures to grab if the MoMA was on fire - he said he would have a hard time deciding which Evans or Weston or Adams to grab, but with Atget it was easy - he would just grab whichever was on the top of the pile.

Don't worry, you'll get it one day if you let yourself...

Anonymous said...

John,

Great story - thanks for telling these. It must have been great fun talking to Mr. Powell.

Dylan

Menlo Bob said...

Don't worry, you'll get it one day if you let yourself...

My last attempt was at the Getty in Los Angeles. I'm afraid very few moved me although I was rooting for them to do just that.

Now if Szarkowski has some appeal you may be interested in purchasing a signed copy of his first book 'Minnesota' from 1953 that I found recently.