Eugène Atget (1856-1927)
'Shopfront, Quai Bourbon, Paris'
Width 17.5 cm x height 21 cm
Museum no. PH.2208-1903
This photograph is an albumen print, contact printed by Atget from a 24x18 glass negative. You can see the dark shapes of two clips which held the negative in place on the right edge of the image. This image was one of many photographs bought by the V&A directly from Atget, in this instance in 1903. This photograph would have been bought as simply an illustration of ironwork in Paris.
The albumen process was almost unused by the early 1900s and so it refers the image to the 19th century and also to the non-art status intended for the photograph. There is, however, an ambiguity in the reading of this image and most strongly in the reflection in the door of the shop of the street scene with Atget and his camera. This is one of Atget's images where it is possible to see why his photographs have fascinated 20th-century photographers; it carries, whether intended or not, a strangeness which invests the image with potential meaning beyond its primarily documentary role.
Eugène Atget was a commercial photographer who worked in and around Paris for over thirty years.
At his death in 1927, his work was known only by a few archivists and artists who had an interest in his photographic record of French visual culture.
After a failed attempt at a career as an actor, Atget set up as a photographer in Paris in 1890. Initially he supplied artists with photographic models, taking pictures of landscapes, posed figures and still lifes. He was friends with, and his work served, artists but he was never to consider his own photographs primarily artistic.
By 1897 he had begun a self-motivated photographic survey of Paris concentrating on the architecture and design of historic buildings in Paris. There were three general groups of buyers of his photographs: artists (his original market), craftsmen wanting to refer to old style architectural details such as ironwork and stone carving, and libraries and museums wanting an illustrative survey of 'Old Paris'. The latter group was the largest buyer of his work and from 1907 to 1912 Atget carried out commissions for them.
He was happiest working without constraints and returned to his life's project, documenting what he wished of Paris, in 1912. In the 1920s avant-garde artists, including Man Ray, whose studio was in the same street as Atget's home, became interested in his work. Some of his images seemed to them to be self-consciously modern and surreal.
This photograph can be found in Print Room Box 13a.