Eugène Atget (1857–1927) took up professional photography in the late 1880s. Details of his earlier life are shadowy. He is known to have been a sailor and then an amateur actor, which may account for the 'stage set' quality of many of his images. He seems to have lived a largely secluded life in his apartment in Paris.
His project to record 'Old Paris' began around 1897 and continued until the 1920s. In it, Atget was driven by the disappearance of buildings as schemes of modernisation swept the city. Ignoring the grand new vistas, he set out to record the character and details of the timeworn streets. He made a stock of prints for sale to artists, museums and libraries, in France and abroad, selling some 600 prints directly to the V&A.
Today, however, Atget is admired less as a record photographer and more as a forerunner of Surrealism and of modern approaches to the art of photography. His urban scenes - featuring snatched glimpses, tangential perspectives, odd reflections and bizarre details - convey a distinctly modern experience of the city. In 1936, critic Walter Benjamin described how these images operated beyond their ostensible purpose, appearing unintentionally, but uncannily, like the 'scene of a crime'.
This shift in perception about Atget's work began in the last years of his life, when he met Berenice Abbott, a young American working in Paris for the photographer Man Ray. After his death, Abbott bought the remains of his archive and began to promote his work. She was entranced by the strangeness of Atget's photographs, seeing in them a Surrealist vein as well as a 'relentless fidelity to fact' and a 'deep love of the subject for its own sake'.
This text was originally written to accompany the exhibition Eugène Atget: Unintentional Surrealist? on display at the V&A South Kensington between 29 January and 22 July 2007.