Looking At Atget

by Matt Damsker


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Published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 125 pages; with essays by Peter Barberie, Beth A. Price, and Ken Sutherland. ISBN Nos. 0-87633-189-4 (cloth); 0-87633-190-8 (paper); 0-300-11137-1 (Yale cloth). The Publishing Department, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19130 USA. http://www.philamuseum.org .

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art became home to the Julian Levy Collection of more than 2,000 photographic treasures in 2001, there was no doubt that the centerpiece of Levy's great holdings was a trove of 361 works by Eugene Atget. These images reflect a key art-historical moment of the 1930s, in which Levy--photography's most prescient collector--and Berenice Abbott partnered in preserving and promoting the contents of Atget's studio, staking their futures on the eventual recognition, not only of Atget, but also of the photographic medium as a worthy art form.

We all know how that played out, and this book and its accompanying exhibition beautifully document the Abbott-Levy project, which brought Atget's vision to a world that was still waking up to photography's possibilities. Abbott, who would find her own fame as a photographic visionary, printed many of these shots herself, rendering superb fidelity from the master's negatives, while Levy found an audience of Atget collectors that has never ceased to grow. In the end, of course, such careerist details matter less than the sheer richness and curiosity of Atget's eye as he documented a Paris of high and low aspiration. His images fused the noble statuary of Versailles and Paris with the trees, leaves, and transient nature of the living world, and captured the rough details of streets, shop windows, prostitutes in their doorways, as well as the domestic textures of salons and other interiors.

As Peter Barberie notes in his essay, "Atget's photography was remarkable for the scope and depth of its subject matter, but his career was similar to those of dozens of other photographers who worked in Paris during his lifetime…Yet Atget took his work most seriously. His photographs manifest a daunting ambition to record countless things." Indeed, Atget's influence on the modernism of Abbott and so many other photographers, whose strategy was to initiate an aesthetic conversation through an abundance of sheer visual information, is profound. It is revelatory to see, in these remarkable photos, how the details of time, place, and texture can combine for so much in a single frame.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.