Père, qui ne dort pas

This past Sunday’s New York Times Travel section has an article on photographers who focused on Paris, which includes this caption: “Avenue des Gobelins” (1925) by Eugene Atget, who documented city shops.”

“Documented city shops”? That’s akin to saying Ansel Adams documented big rocks.

The article doesn’t say much more about Atget, other than that he liked photographing doorways. Perhaps I’m biased because I live in the U.S., where Atget’s photos were initially presented as art rather than mere documentation, which is how they were viewed in his native France, but I think that the omission of his influence on surrealists and filmmakers ignores the legacy of Atget’s work.

It’s arguable that his photos inspired the cinematography of Paris qui Dort, one of my favorite films, and possibly even that of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, which is the film and story that Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is based on. Atget’s sublime photos are beautiful for their multilayered view of a scene: the still life of the mannequins within the store; the still life of the vacant street reflected in the window glass; the shining, still surface of the window glass itself–which mirrors the glass plates that Atget used to capture whole these scenes, trapping them to reproduce at a later time, when the mannequins had been moved and the street had filled with bustling crowds.

While I cannot say that Atget’s photos have inspired me to great works, they do float half-submerged through the waters of my memory. They lead me to see the world around me in a different light and to reflect on scenes of urban desolation as enlightening, ephemeral, enchanting wonderlands that reflect us, their inhabitants, most clearly in the brief midnight moments when we are gone.

Atget Lanes

At times, I foolishly try to capture parts of that feeling in images–the emptiness and simplicity
that fill those times and places that nobody inhabits, such as the streets around here before dawn, when I’m out walking Barky.

Three Blind Mice

During the day, we could have to wait five minutes to cross the busy streets, but when we’re out in the morning, we could walk down the center of the street for five minutes and never see a soul.

Skywires

Any attempt of mine to capture those feelings is a fool’s errand, however, because it inevitably ends with a series of frames that does nothing more than document the locations that I pass through, rather than capture the feelings of those places and transport them through space and time, as do Atget’s photos.

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  • Anonymous

    Hey nice work, we really and this is true would like to get a hi rez copy of the fire hydrant and the tree on the sidewalk. Could you do that? We could get them off your or mine .mac site or flicka.

    Next time the king plays in your town front row seats baby.

    Sorry havent check in awhile, the boys were in town for the Kings 40th and we tore it up for a few days.

    TCB ovr the hill.

  • I rather suspect your disappointment with your photographs is largely to do with your proximity to them. I find them quite evocative because to me, I am building an entire world from the small amount of information you’ve provided. To you, they’re just parts of buildings and places you know very well, so you fill in the gaps from knowledge; they are therefore less capable of being romanticised for you.

    Does that make the merest iota of sense?

  • I think the photos are great and truly do capture the feeling of the moment. Of course I think it is really hard for a photo to not capture emotion. I find the first one particularly evocotive.

  • ‘ansel adams documented big rocks’

    very smart.

  • You reminded me of some of my favorite painters as well, photorealists like Chuck Close. Images of window panes, reflecting urban desolation, let somehow to me incredibly full of life because they were the product of hours of intense physical work and devotion.