I’m a big fan of the work of early 20th century French photographer Eugène Atget. When I was strolling through the Marais the other day, I was surprised and delighted to see that they have an Atget exhibit at the musée Carnavalet, but hurry, because it’s just there until July 29, 2012. The exhibit is the largest I’ve ever seen of Atget’s work, presenting 230 photographs that document life in Paris between 1898 and 1927. The musée Carnavalet is the repository of all that concerns the city of Paris, so it’s logical that they have a vast collection. Their photographs are augmented by collections belonging to the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY and another collection in Madrid.
Atget, an actor who couldn’t make ends meet, turned to photography to supplement his income. His plans were simple – he’d take pictures of Paris and Parisians and sell them to his friends in the arts community, such as set designers and artists. In so doing, he created an amazing record of life as it was lived in the little streets by the little people at a time when Paris was on the cusp of transformation from a city of slums to a city of light. As a result, his major clients were the Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque Nationale who realized the importance of archiving these moments before they were gone.
One section of the exhibit presented the photographs that the American surrealist Man Ray bought from Atget and the work of a photographer who was Atget’s contemporary, Emmanuel Pottier, but whose work documenting Paris has remained virtually unknown.
The exhibit itself was packed when I went in, which testifies to the importance of photography as a legitimate art form to the French and of Atget in particular. They actually stopped allowing people in to allow the crowds to dissipate a bit to make it easier to appreciate each small photograph. When I left, there was a substantial queue of people waiting to come inside the museum.
Today’s expression, petits métiers (putea may-tea-ay), means “little jobs,” or “little trades.” This is the group that Atget specialized in, the little people whose jobs weren’t glamorous or well-paid, but who kept life functioning for millions. It’s also how he would have looked on his own work. He would have been stunned to see line-ups of well-dressed Parisians waiting to study photographs that he considered to be nothing more than “documents.”