Atget’s people

July 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, 1924

Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, c. 1900

I was staying at my aunt and uncle’s house near Saint-Malo last week and, as is par for the course in Brittany, it was raining – on and off but so frequently that going for a walk or to the beach was out of the question. Luckily, their house is well stocked with books, and the first one I happened upon was a Taschen edition of Eugène Atget’s photos.

Several pages in, I noticed something I never had before, despite having spent hours over the years poring over Atget’s work.


There are people in Atget’s photos. That sounds blindingly obvious, but I don’t mean the tradesmen and women he photographed for his Petits Métiers, or the prostitutes lounging in doorways or skulking on corners or the waiters or policemen or idlers gazing at adverts on Morris columns.


No, what I mean is the diaphanous grey blurs and smudges that very occasionally appear in otherwise empty streets, the seemingly deserted spaces that look like stage sets waiting for the actors to appear, that Walter Benjamin famously likened to crime scenes. They’re so small and slight that it would be easy to mistake them for a shadow, or perhaps a smudge on the lens, or a darkroom accident. I probably have made the same mistake myself up to now, if indeed I ever noticed them at all.


But they’re none of the above. They’re people, hurrying along the street, that Atget’s long exposures couldn’t pin down before they vanished. All they left on the glass plates were traces of themselves, records of movement rather than of tangible existence. Or ghosts, perhaps? This was, after all, the age of Spiritualism and séances. But Atget’s camera was more powerful than the tricks of any nineteenth-century medium.

Eugène Carrière, Place Clichy, Night, c. 1899-1900

Eugène Carrière, Place Clichy, Night, c. 1899-1900

Gazing at these ectoplasmic blurs reminded me of the work of a contemporary of Atget’s, who by neat coincidence shared his name – Eugène Carrière. Although he’s best known for his dark, vaporous portraits of women and children (which prompted Degas to snipe, ‘Someone has been smoking in the nursery’) one of his most extraordinary canvases is a view of the Place Clichy at night, with the passersby rendered as mere shadows, less substantial even than the glow of the streetlamps.

Were both Eugènes aware of each other’s work? Fairly likely, I’d guess. Even if not, it’s fair to say that I’ll never again assume that Atget’s deserted streets are so unpeopled without looking carefully to see whether he captured a ghost crossing his lens, some anonymous, ordinary Parisian who unwittingly, poignantly, left a trace on history.


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