The empty streets (and parks) of Eugène Atget​


Collections Management
April 17, 2020

Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927) is best known for his photography of the disappearing architecture of ‘Old Paris’, a project that was the focus of his career from 1897 through to the 1920s. Although he first took up photography as a professional in the late 1880s, details of his life prior to this are relatively scant. He is known to have been a sailor, and then an amateur actor. This latter profession may have informed his photographic ability in setting a scene.

Church of St Gervais, Paris, photograph by Eugène Atget, 1897-1903. Museum no. PH.224-1903. © Victoria and Albert Museum

What is striking about these images now is their urban solitude and emptiness. There are hints of life, empty chairs, tire tracks in well-worn dirt roads, even a solid example of a horse’s recent departure front and centre in one image. These are photographs where we have apparently just missed out on something – some action that has just unfolded. However, if we look a little closer, these empty streets might not be as they first appear. 

The reason Atget’s Paris appears so devoid of people is, in fact, partly down to the photographic method Atget chose throughout his career. Although dry plate technology had allowed photographers to leave the studio, these plates were still quite ’slow’ (meaning they required longer exposure times to allow enough light to enter the camera to form an image). As a result, unless the people in the scene stood stock-still they would either become blurs, ghostly half-captured outlines, or simply fail to be recognised by the camera as a figure at all.

This was, however, a time of rapid advances in regards to photography, but Atget declined to adopt faster camera technology. He stuck with the same large wooden camera, a heavy burden to carry across Paris, with many of his photographs retaining these ghostly mirages to a lesser or greater degree.

Atget and his photography have been championed by any number of movements both during and after his lifetime, from the Surrealists, to Modernists. He was claimed by some as the father of ‘straight photography’, a title that Atget himself shied away from, responding to inquiries at the time with the enigmatic, ’These are simply documents I make’. However it is the measured aspects of Atget’s photographic vision, his ‘relentless fidelity to fact’ (despite their nostalgic remit of ‘Old Paris’), that give these images a distinctly modern vision of the city, and such a powerful resonance today.

About the author


Collections Management
April 17, 2020

I am Curator of Documentation and Digitisation at the V&A.

More from Dan Cox
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Comments

Many thanks for such interesting story! It answered my questions why on so many photographs of the end of XIX century was no people in the streets.

Dear Daniel.
I am currently researching the notion of W. Benjamin’s notion of the Optical Unconscious in relation to Eugene Atget’s empty cityscapes and images taken during the COVID lockdown in Paris. Are you aware if Atget was impacted in anyway by the Spanish Flu? If so would you be able to point me to a source? I remember reading that he was not out working much during that time, but I can’t form the life of me remember the source….

Thank you so much for your time and help.
Very best,
Anna Gruner-Hegge

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