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.
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.
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.
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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