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 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.''
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"