The art of artless photos

Eugene Atget's work displayed in Philadelphia

Arts

September 08, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the last decade of the 19th century, a former provincial actor named Eugene Atget began selling pictures of Parisian landmarks to artists and others who required objective, documentary images for their work.

Atget, who is the subject of a major exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was entirely self-taught (as were most commercial photographers of his era).

But what set him apart from his contemporaries was the utter unpretentiousness of his art. Not only did his pictures refrain from literary or symbolic comment, they also seemed to lack any sort of artistic style at all.

The things Atget photographed - parks, public monuments, store windows, empty streets, almost always captured during the early-morning hours when people were unlikely to be about - appeared in his pictures as unvarnished truths, shorn of artifice or romantic sentiment.

It was as if the photographer had simply set up his camera and snapped whatever was in front of his lens, no matter how inconsequential.

In an Atget photograph, there is never any striving for elegance or effect, but rather a deadpan acceptance of the unadorned physical presence of whatever the camera is pointed at.

Atget worked in this fashion for nearly three decades until his death in the 1920s. By then, he had been lionized by a new, self-consciously modern generation of writers and artists gathered under the banner of surrealism.

In Atget's straightforward depictions of everyday scenes, they found confirmation of their ideas about the "shock of the ordinary" as a way of making commonplace subjects seem uncanny, as if conjured in a dream.

During the final decade of his life, Atget was befriended by a young American photographer, Berenice Abbott, who recognized in his work a precursor to surrealism and to the emerging aesthetic of "straight" photography, with its emphasis on clarity, simplicity and emotional restraint.

After Atget's death, Abbott purchased the artist's remaining negatives and prints and brought them to New York, where she became a tireless promoter of his work who also incorporated his "styleless" style into her own extended documentary project on New York City's architectural heritage.

Many of the more than 100 vintage prints in the Philadelphia show were executed by Abbott from Atget's negatives. These images have influenced generations of documentary photographers, from Walker Evans and his Depression-era colleagues to Dan Graham's dispassionate surveys of suburban sprawl in the 1960s and '70s.

Despite their simplicity, Atget's pictures have a calm authority and purity of expression that allows them to speak to our age as clearly as they did to their own. This is a lovely show, and well worth a day's trip to Philadelphia.

"Looking at Atget" runs through Nov. 27. The museum is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Friday. Admission is $12 adults, $9 seniors and $8 students. Call 215-763-8100 or go to www.philamuseum.org.

For more art events, see Page 31.

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