Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927)
The work of French photographer Eugène Atget documents the architecture and street scenes of Paris throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. What makes Atget’s urban landscapes particularly unique is the continual lack of human figures in his work. When viewed together, his photographs paint a beautiful yet disturbing portrait of arguably the most iconic city in the world; a private window into a lonely and abandoned Paris.
This description makes is seem like Atget was attempting to avoid human subjects in his work, which is completely untrue. In fact, a lot of the photos he took, there were most likely people walking through them. Atget used silver-gel negative glass dry-plates as his “film”. The way to achieve the best tonal range on these plates, which Atget was an expert at, was to photograph in lower light for a very long exposure time. This is why there are sometimes wispy blurs of figures in his images, and shadow are very un-defined (as they would move throughout the very long exposure).
He was also contacting printing these glass dry-plates onto Albumen paper using natural light. From having worked with Albumen paper, I can tell you that you need a dense negative to get proper tonal range. I ended up photo-copying my 4x5 film onto transparencies so that I could stack several to make my film dense enough! A dense negative is also useful for printing in natural light, because you have only a very rough idea of what your exposure time should be, due to the ever-changing nature of sunlight. Dense negative = slower exposure = more of a chance to check it a few times and not over-expose it.
All of these factors explain why human subjects are not seen in Atget’s photography. He once told man-ray that he loved his photographs of people, but he would stick to photographing the beautiful city of paris, because it was what he knew, and what he was good at. Good thing he did, because shortly after, paris was torn apart to construct the boulevards.
/end photo history lesson.