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He went to sea as a young man, toiled as an actor in second-string houses, flirted briefly with a career as a painter. Then in 1890, at the age of 33, the Frenchman Eugène Atget (pronounced ah-jay) decided to become a photographer, to his, and everyone else's, great benefit.
Many mornings he left his tiny fifth-floor walk-up in Paris at dawn. Lugging 40 pounds of antiquated equipment, he headed out like a beast of burden to record a vanishing world. Unappreciated at the beginning, he sold his prints for next to nothing to museums and libraries. "Photography was as essential to Atget as flying was to Lindbergh," wrote photographer Berenice Abbott, an early Atget supporter who rescued some 5,000 of his prints after his death.
In time that collection made its way to the archives of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which since 1981, with the help of the Fort Mill, S.C.-based Springs Industries, Inc., has sponsored a four-part traveling exhibit devoted to Atget and his gentle but unsentimental vision. Parts I and II, Old France and The Art of Old Paris, which include photographs of the French countryside and 16th- to 19th-century urban architecture, have completed their U.S. tours. Part III, opening at the Saint Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, is The Ancien Regime. Part IV, Modern Times, opens Nov. 16 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
For more than a quarter of a century, Atget explored the châteaus and gardens of the French kings and nobility, in particular the royal parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud and Sceaux. The Ancien Regime shows he saw no need for the kind of gimmickry Deborah Turbeville used in her 1981 book, Unseen Versailles, where she scratched and overexposed her negatives to achieve a concocted sense of the past. With matchless purity, Atget photographed the staircases at Saint-Cloud and Sceaux, staircases that seemed to lead nowhere yet reminded the viewer of the lost glory of France. His series on the reflecting pools at Saint-Cloud, the inky fronds of trees mirrored in the still waters, is the work of a great artist. No one, not even the Impressionist painters, caught the quality of French light more exquisitely than Atget.
Modern Times demonstrates that during those same years, he did not neglect the more mundane sights of Paris, taking photographs of the city's street people—its ragpickers and window washers, a lampshade vendor, organ grinders, even Gypsies. He captured asphalt pavers, crouching with dancerlike grace, as they laid down the steaming tar. For one frame Atget squeezed against the stone wall of rue de la Reynie to record the cart and tools of the neighborhood tinsmith. He gazed into shop windows at rows of corsets laced tight on wasp-waisted dummies. And he paused to record the front of an auto shop on the avenue de la Grande Armée. In a typical device, the glass pane reflects the pattern of the leafy trees on the boulevard. One of the show's strongest images is a portrait of a prostitute, lounging outdoors on a chair. Her hair is plastered flapper-style on her forehead. She is smoking a cigarette and coquettishly sticking one high-laced boot out toward the camera. Atget's studies of a milliner's shop and suffocating bourgeois interiors are no less compelling—like visual flashes from a Balzac novel.
Late in his life he took photographs of nearly empty cafes and theaters, of the decaying park at Sceaux, as if, according to one biographer, he was bidding them adieu. When his beloved mistress, the actress Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, died in 1926, he was inconsolable. Emotionally weakened, Atget found it nearly impossible to lift his camera. He died in 1927, leaving behind in his studio some 7,000 prints. Of his work he once said, "These are simply documents I make."
After leaving St. Louis, The Ancien Regime will continue on to Montreal August 29. Modern Times is scheduled to travel next year to Detroit, Montreal and Washington, D.C. (Parts I and II are now back at the Museum of Modern Art.) The Works of Atget, The Ancien Regime and Modern Times (The Museum of Modern Art, $40 and $45, respectively) are beautifully printed, informative books published in conjunction with the shows.