Thursday 12 February 2015


The great photographer Eugene Atget was born on this day in 1857. His self-appointed mission was to document what remained of the old, pre-Haussmann Paris (the Paris whose passing Baudelaire mourned). He set about it methodically and on a grand scale, using a large-format wooden bellows camera with glass dry plates, and capturing thousands of images of forgotten corners and commonplaces of the city.
 Though he saw himself purely as a documenter, the Surrealists, as was their way, adopted him as one of their own after Berenice Abbott published some of his photographs. You can see their point: there is something strange and unsettling about Atget's street scenes - not least that they are characteristically deserted, any human presences tending either to blend into the scene as if they've always been there, or to be present only as ghost-like images, blurred into near-invisibility by long exposure times. The pictures often have a haunted quality - or, as Walter Benjamin put it, they feel like 'the scene of a crime'. He went further, declaring that Atget's photographs of the unremarked, forgotten and abandoned 'work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship'. Well, maybe. Needless to say, the web is well populated with Atget's haunting images; it's easy to spend an awful lot of time poring over them... 

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