Eugéne Atget: Pioneer of Documentary Photography
Eugéne Atget was born in Libourne, France in 1857. He is so commonly remembered for pioneering what is known as documentary photography. This type of photography is somewhat very similar to street photography which is more common now. Eugéne Atget is remembered for his initiative to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before they disappeared into modernization.
Like so many famous artists, many of his photographs weren’t published until after his death. He began to become recognized by other photographers just two years before his death.
Eugéne Atget’s parents both passed away during his young adolescence. His maternal grandparents raised him in Bordeaux and after finishing high school, he went into the merchant navy.
Atget moved to Paris in 1878. He auditioned for acting classes and failed the first time, and then was allowed in when he auditioned again. He was still drafted during the time he was in drama school, and he was expelled for only being able to be there part-time.
While living in Paris, he became an actor with a traveling group. They stayed in and around Paris still. He met his wife, Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, who was an actress in Paris. She died just a few years after they were married. Eugéne Atget gave up on his acting career in 1887, due to an infection of his vocal cords. After he gave up on his acting, he moved to the provinces and took up painting, but was not successful.
Realizing he would never have a career in painting, he still spent his life as an amateur painter. His first photographs date back to 1888. In 1890, Atget moved back to Paris. He settled down as a commercial photographer, and put on a sign on his door that read, “Documents for Artists.”
In 1898, Eugéne Atget began to specialize in what is known as “Old Paris.” This became his project for nearly 30 years. This idea of old Paris was a campaign to preserve and document pre-revolutionary architecture. Many of Atget’s photographs are of building facades and the streets of Paris, because he felt that he needed to document and archive the city before the construction of Paris Métro.
Atget stopped taking pictures almost entirely after the First World War (1914-1918). In 1920, Atget offered to sell a portion of his glass-plate negatives to the government. He wrote a letter to the Minister of the Fine Arts and wrote, “For more than 20 years I have been working alone and of my own initiative in all the old streets of Old Paris to make a collection of 18 x 24 [centimeter] photographic negatives: artistic documents of beautiful urban architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries. . . . Today this enormous artistic and documentary collection is finished; I can say I possess all of Old Paris." The government purchased almost 3,000 of Atget’s negatives for 10,000 francs.In the 1920s, Atget became noticed in modern art’s avant-garde. This wasn’t long before his death in August of 1927.
The Scream by Edvard Munch