Thursday, July 12, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: Eugene Atget, Paris

In all the years I lived full-time in Paris, I saw many an old photo and/or postcard of the City of Light. But I didn’t know the name Atget. More recently there was a mini-show at the Musée d’Orsay about him. And then my daughter - thoughtfully nourishing a) my love of Paris and b) my budding interest in photography - gave me a book of his photographic work.
     So when I saw there was a show of his photography at the Museum of Parisian History, I just had to go.
     (No one actually calls it the Museum of Parisian History. Most people just know it as Carnavalet, the name of its illustrious owner, Mme. Carnavalet, who bought it after it was built in 1548. Around 1655 it was renovated by none other than François Mansart, the most accomplished of all 17th c French architects. Noted French writer Mme. de Sévigné lived there as of 1677, which is why the street bears her name. The City of Paris bought the mansion in 1866 and opened it to the public in 1880. It became so crowded with memorabilia - Paris has a lot of history! - that the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau mansion (1686) was annexed and connected up in 1989. Now the museum has about one hundred rooms where you can trace the history of France’s capital, starting with a prehistoric canoe from 4600 B.C. right up to present day artifacts.)

But on to the exhibit. The reason Carnavalet hosted it is that Atget sold 9,000 of his photos to them over the years. The museum was one of his biggest client. About 180 of those photos are included in this show.
     Eugène Atget was born in southwest France in 1857. At age 5, both parents died, leaving him an orphan. As a young man, he moved to Paris and tried to make a career of acting, with little success. At 31, he studied photography, which was to be his gagne-pain (his bread and butter) for the rest of his life.
     Fascinated by the Paris that was fast disappearing, demolished by the grandiose decrees of Napoleon II and the pick-axes of Baron Haussmann’s workers, Atget roamed the streets with his camera, photographing shops, mansions and hovels alike, store signs, street peddlers whose professions were also disappearing... all the things that were hold-overs from the Ancien Régime. And he kept it up from 1897 to his death in 1927, except for a hiatus during the folly of World War I.
     The last photo in the exhibition is a portrait of Eug ne Atget at age 70. It was taken by an American photographer and admirer, Berenice Abbott. When she went back to his house to give it to him a few days later, his doors were closed. Atget had died.

I think the parts I enjoyed most were those of the actual people and of the shop signs.  Paris had many, many "emblem" signs because many of the French still couldn't read and could only write their name, if that.  Jules Ferry passed his laws making education gratuite, laïque et obligatoire - free, secular and mandatory - in 1881-82 only. So the café called Le Tambour had a drum over the door, and so forth.
     And the people! It’s hard to imagine that less than a century before I reached Paris, people lived in such abject squalor. The series of photos of the ragpickers who lived on the fortifs at the edges of Paris - the fortified earthworks mounded up to protect Paris as of the 1840's - reminded me of photos taken of the ragpickers of Egypt that Sister Emmanuelle broadcast to the world. And this in France, one of the world’s leading colonial powers of the day!
     Although he concentrated his efforts on the heart of Paris, there were also a few photos of Montmartre... minus the tourists, of course.
     The show ends with the collection of photos that Surrealist Man Ray bought from Atget. They were on loan from the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (Eastman, of Kodak fame) - the first time they’ve seen French soil since they emigrated to America. There were also a handful of photos by an emulator of Atget, Emmanuel Pottier.
     Without Atget’s tireless and systematic coverage of the heart of Old Paris, we would have no idea what it was like, no feeling for what Parisians’ lives were like. Hugo wrote of it, but that leaves a lot to the imagination. This show is an excellent example of "One picture is worth a thousand words."
     And if that is true - which it certainly appears to be - then Atget left a fortune to Paris.

Eugène Atget, Paris
through July 29, 2012

Musée Carnavalet
23 rue de Sévigné
Paris 4è

Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 6
Closed Mondays

Tickets 7€, 5€ and 3.50€

1 comment:

  1. Do they have a catalog of the exhibit? I would be interested in one, Sandy.