At the start of 1890, Eugène Atget pinned a sign to the front door of his apartment.
Documents pour artistes
It was an advert for business and a declaration that Atget was now a photographer.
Photography had not been his first choice. He came to it through work as a sailor, an actor, and finally as an artist. He gave up painting when he realised his talents were pale in comparison to others. But the experience taught Atget of the artist’s need for subject matter which made him consider photography.
His intention was to supply artists with photographs of landscapes, buildings, street scenes, people, animals, and flowers. What he called “Documents for artists.” He thought this would be good business as it meant his photographs would help artists spend more time in the studio and less looking for subject matter.
Camera technology changed considerably between 1870 and 1890. Cameras were still unwieldy boxes on tripod legs, but they were lighter, and easier to carry. More importantly, images could be produced more quickly using dry plate photography.
Atget (1857-1927) wandered the streets of Paris dressed in a large black cloak and floppy hat, his camera slung on its tripod over his shoulder. He drifted until something triggered a response which he stopped to photograph.
Paris is the city of the flâneur. Its streets and boulevards invite perambulation. Its arrondissements are filled with hidden beauty that trigger involuntary memory. Atget was a flâneur, who wandered the city waiting for his “madeleine moment” to photograph. A chance encounter with a prostitute idling by her front door; a hawker selling wares from a cart; a maitre d‘s blurred face at the door of a restaurant; a shop window filled with mannequins; or the empty cobbled street still warm with the impression of activity.
Would you like to support Flashbak?
Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.