He will be remembered as an urbanist historian, a genuine romanticist, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization.
— Berenice Abbott
Have you ever heard of the prolific photographer Eugène Atget? It would makes sense that you have not - he wasn't particularly well known in his own time, either. Despite his relative obscurity, he is considered by some to be a founding father of modern photography.
Atget was a pioneer of documentary photography in the late 1800s. He spent 30 years of his life systematically photographing "Old Paris" - the historic parts of the city that were threatened by Haussmann's grand plans to modernize the French capital. He never considered his work to be art, however, and he never left anything like an artist's statement. For Atget, this was a work of documentation - of capturing images of his city before it disappeared.
Despite this decidedly un-artistic intention, the photographs he created are artistically stunning. At the end of his life (Atget dies in 1927), avant-garde photographers living in Paris like Man Ray and Berenice Abbott "discovered" Atget and celebrated the surrealist aspect of his images. The National Gallery of Art describes his work as "strikingly clear and detailed but also deeply personal and somehow ineffable." The composition, the use of lightness and darkness, and the focus on decaying and dismal parts of the city makes his "documents" equal parts real and dreamlike.
Looking at Atget's photos helps me to remember that there can be beauty in all we do. Even something as functional as architectural documentation can be art. I also appreciate how Atget's photos somehow capture not just the visuals of the Old Paris, but also the intangible energy of the decaying medieval city. Looking through his photos recently, I wondered what Atget would see if he returned to the places his shot between 1898 and 1920. Thanks to my dear friend Google Street View, I was able to satiate my wonder. I was pretty surprised and delighted to see that many of the places Atget documented are still recognizable today. In some cases, it is uncanny how little has changed over the past 100 years. Check out the juxtaposed photos below and see for yourself.