Eugène Atget

What is photographic perfection to you? Is it a technically sound image? Perhaps something that follows the "rules" of photography? Razor sharp foreground with buttery bokeh? Is it perfect exposure or perfect colors? Or is it something less quantifiable?

Eugène Atget - Paris
Eugène Atget - Paris

For me, perfection is about evoking emotion within me and more importantly, the process that took me there. Perfection is a photo that grabs my face by both sides, pulls me in close, and won't let me go. And that is exactly what the style of French photographer Eugène Atget does for me.

Eugène Atget

Born Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget on February 12, 1857 in the southwest of France (specifically, Libourne, Gironde, Aquitaine, France) and raised in Bordeaux, Atget is considered by many as the father of documentary photography - though he sought neither fame nor fortune (he didn't even want to be called a photographer, rather an author-producer of documents).

At the age of 33, Atget became a professional photographer in Paris. His work began like many of us - shooting still life, portraits, landscape, architecture and various other images inspired by his photographic heroes of the time. In 1898, at the age of 41, he began a project that consumed the next 30 years of his life: The Old Paris Collection. In this, he documented life in Paris from the big picture down to the most minute architectural detail. His growth and understanding of light and shadow evolved over the course of the project as well as his mastery of the process. Early on, he'd minimize shadow for an evenly bright scene but gradually brought shadows to the starring role of his images to set mood and drive emotion. (Though he's always been an influence to me, it is the Paris Collection that is currently driving my evolution of photography.)

In an age of shrinking cameras, Atget, with his large-format wooden camera (a 30-pound 8x10 view camera), slowly captured urban life, narrow winding streets and the beautiful architecture of his city onto glass negatives. I truly understand the why now, as I also dare to slow down and return to basic photographic tools in a world that is constantly speeding up.

What captures my eye in this series is the lack of textbook perfection that so many photographers demand of themselves. You can see from the images here that he shared what he captured, as he shot it. Perhaps the subject is off-center (which he often did just to break the rules). Perhaps the walls are not plumb on the negative. Maybe the focus wasn't nailed. But none of that matters. It's not what these images are about. Their soul. What grabs my attention is that these are real scenes that have been well thought out and were carefully executed. You can feel the slow that was required to capture these images. You can feel the process. It's in spite of technical perfection that makes me want to look at them all day and relive the moment that he saw.

There is a story, not only in the people and places of these photographs but also in the process of making the images. From framing and metering the scene to developing the scene on albumen silver photographic paper in the darkroom. There is a profound love in every image here.

I've really enjoyed finding my slow over the past several years, in part due to revisiting the works of the 19th century masters like Atget. It is nice to slow down and enjoy doing what others have been doing for over 100 years.

All images by Eugène Atget between 1898-1922 - Public Domain

Cour, 7 rue de Valence, 1922
Cour, 7 rue de Valence, 1922
Eugène Atget
Eugène Atget
Eugène Atget
Eugène Atget