Several years ago, when I was taking a photography course, my well-meaning teacher paid me a compliment that caused me to experience total panic. He told me that some of my photos reminded him of French photographer Eugène Atget. I’d never heard of him before, so I went on a hunt for works by Atget. I found books of haunting black and white photos by an early 20th century master photographer. Atget documented Paris on the cross-roads between a gritty past and its present reality as a jewel of a city. My teacher’s praise made me incapable to submit any more work to him for fear of not living up to his kind remarks and I never finished that course.
When I heard that the Museum of Modern Art (M0MA) in New York had a Atget exhibition, I was eager to check it out. I’m on Spring Break this week, so I finally had the opportunity to take a little time for a jaunt to New York. The exhibit, Eugène Atget: “Documents pour artistes” is only open for a few more days, April 9, 2012. If you have the possibility to get to New York, it’s well worthwhile. The title of the exhibit is drawn from Atget’s sign outside his studio; he didn’t see himself as an artist, but as someone providing source material for others. The exhibit is organized around six themes that provide a cross-section of an enormous body of work. All 100 of the pictures are from the MoMA’s huge archives. Atget lived in the 5th Arrondissment and often photographed the Luxembourg Gardens. When I’m in Paris, I live on the other side of the park in the 6th Arrondissement. It was amazing to see how much is exactly the same as when Atget composed his photographs on enormous plates. It’s only in the shots of people that you see how much Paris has changed; there are no more Chiffoniers going around gathering cloth to be used as rags. While I can see what my teacher was referring to in finding some similarity in the themes I choose to photograph, I am in no way in the league of Atget. After seeing the exhibit, however, I enjoyed photographing New York’s Bryant Park just for the fun of it, without the pressure of trying to be Atget. The first two urn pictures are by Atget, the last is mine. If a trip to the exhibit is out of the questions, here’s a slideshow of some of his haunting images.
Today’s expression, à la bonne franquette (ah lah bun frahnket), is a little old-fashioned and hard to translate precisely. Any time you see “ette” on the end of a work, it’s a diminutive form (cigar, cigarette). Franc means frank or straightforward, in the sense of modest simplicity, without airs and graces. As a whole, the expression refers to situations that are a little informal. To dine à la bonne franquette might mean to share a pot-luck meal. Atget’s modesty might have led him to describe his photographs as being made à la bonne franquette. He’d be the first person to be horrified that seeing his work shut me down for months.