Recording the disappearing, the Eugène Atget’s legacy

And the story went like this. Just as the 21 century unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender was pondering on staying behind at 1920s with his new girlfriend Adriana, the former lover of Pablo Picasso and Earnest Hemingway, the couple were yet again transported back in time to the 1890s Belle Époque, or what Adriana called “the golden age of Paris” and came across Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas, who were talking passionately about Renaissance as the greatest era… Nostalgia is a sentimentality  in the recent Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris”, as was in the current photographic exhibition “Eugène Atget, Old Paris” at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Eugène Atget
Boulevard de Strasbourg 1912, albumen photograph
George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester
Fireplace, Hôtel Matignon, former Austrian embassy,57 rue de Varenne, 7th arrondissement 1905
Shop sign, au Rémouleur on the corner of the rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères
and rue de I’Hôtel-de-Ville, 4th arrondissement July 1899
albumen photographs © Musée Carnavalet, Paris/Roger-Viollet/TopFoto
From the exhibition “Eugène Atget, Old Paris” at Art Gallery NSW, 24 August – 4 November 2012

French has a natural inclination for nostalgia, a sense of lost and longing, remembrance and regret. “Eugène Atget, Old Paris” seems to have provided yet another evidence for such a sentimental longing of the past…or to put it precisely, the past of the past.

It is now generally belived that Eugène Atget’s (1857–1927) recorded a Paris that has not been touched by the “Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris”, which restructured the city according to a modernisation program starting from 1850s and continued well into the early 20th century. As a result of this massive urbanisation, “huge areas of Paris were demolished … to make way for the grand boulevards, green spaces, railway stations, the metro and so on”, which defined the city’s outlook for which Paris is known to the world today.

This is the first comprehensive exhibition in Australia of the work of Eugène Atget showing over 200 photos which came primarily from Musée Carnavalet, Paris (the museum of the history of Paris) as well as the Man Ray Collection of George Eastman House, Rochester, USA., all grouped under the tags of small trades, Parisian ‘type’ and shops, the streets of Paris, ornaments, interiors, vehicles, gardens, the River Seine, and outside the city centre (the ‘zone’). Apart from the fact that Eugène Atget is regarded as “the father of documentary photography”, this exhibition is interesting in a number of ways.

On the first impression, the historic value of the photos is obvious. The old Paris caught in Atget’s glass plates is an old Paris, a version that has long disappeared even before the modernist movement became fully fledged. “Atget would notate his photographs and albums if he knew a place was to be demolished” and what he documented was a “disappearing Paris”, or “the parts of the city not affected by the demolition and modernisation”.

But what Atget did was not merely recording, there was clearly something new in his approach. In the exhibition catalogue, Atget photography was described as “remote from the clichés of the Belle époque (Art Nouveau buildings, large department stores, Folies Bergere and other such spectacles)”. In other words, what Atget preserved was a non-mainstream narrative of the old Paris, a vision that was on the edge but was slowly being eroded away at his time.

The photographer’s “voice” is undeniably present in these works. From the aesthetic point of view, it is interesting to see how Atget insisted to get a visually balanced picture, paying attention to the proportion of light and shadow, comparison of lines and curves and how Atget was trying to imitate a classic painting in the composition of the “garden statues” and the only handful of female nude shots, a typical tendency in the early pictorialist photographers. But it is also clear that what Atget was trying to do is actually to tell a story about old Paris through lens. The perspective of telling a story is thus somewhat different from the perspective of pictorial aesthetics alone. In some works, (as was the shop sing in the top left image of the above picture) some visual elements were intentionally cut off. The incomplete visual narrative gave more intriquing imagination space for more tory-telling. And the empty streets and ghostly human images (caused by long exposure time of his camera) often left people pondering about the the stories the people who once lived there.

Recording the old and the disappearing has always held the people’s fascinations, regardless of culture and time. The other day I happened to come across a series of photos at China Study Centre’s online journal China Express, taken by Prof. David Goodman, the academic director of the centure. In a span of 30 years he kept coming back to the same spot of China to record the change and then recently came up with a stunning visual narrative of China’s urban transformation: what has disappeared and what has taken the place of the disappeared.

In the face of human needs and population expansion, the old must give way to the new. And this has never been felt so keenly in the world than in China in the past 30 years. Demolition and reconstruction is an everyday story in Chinese cities. A few years ago, I had the chance of staying in Guangzhou, the southern metropolis (also a historical city of thousands of years) in the vicinity of Hong Kong for a prolonged time in leisure and recorded a few such “changes in process”.

Visual Guangzhou Old and New, 2009. Photo: MingyueZ

Reference: the exhibition catalogue “Eugène Atget, Old Paris”, produced by the Art Gallery of NSW, print

1 Comment

  1. You have followed the brief well and demonstrated a clear understanding of how to adapt the old to the new and also made a very important connection between nostalgia and sentimentality as in the recent Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris”, and the comparison to the current photographic exhibition “Eugène Atget, Old Paris. Very good shots of Guangzhou.

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