Eugène Atget: Object-oriented photographer

“It has justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial [Prozess]. This constitutes their hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them. They unsettle the viewer; he feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them”{Benjamin 2008@27}.

Atget walked the streets of Paris from 1897 until his death in 1927 with his view camera and a particular sensibility. He was a working hack. He took pictures to sell as  “documents for artists” in the nearby town of Montparnasse.

At the same time as fellow French Leica-toting photojournalists and Russian constructivists were feting speed as technique, source material and inspiration, Atget plodded around Paris like the fabled flâneur and his turtle, unfurling his equipment, waiting as the light encoded Paris as information and then waiting while light encoded it again as an Albumen print.

The long exposures meant the pictures were often devoid of people but that is not what makes his sensibility object-oriented. Rather it is the ghostly traces of humans occasionally caught in the doorways, on street corners or reflected in window alongside the rags ‘n refuse of Paris that make Atget object-oriented.

His object-oriented sensibility (his eye as photographers might call it) is democratic. His litany includes gargoyles and statues, steps and railings, beds and bottles, hats and mannequins, toys and fruit, traders and trees. Like an istockphoto freelancer compulsively imag(in)ing in the belief that someone, somewhere needs a picture of X, Atget documented. But here there is no ‘decisive moment’ or even privileged access. His scopic flanerie was extensive but not comprehensive. He selected particular objects to make into objects but there was no hierarchy of Parisian reality. No Eiffel Tower at the top and a articular stair at the bottom nor vice versus. His was not a humanist imaging nor an anti-humanist. He simply didn’t care or maybe even see the distinctions.

For Atget, as for anyone walking the city, Paris withdrew. Yet he encountered it. There was sensual dimension to Paris that Atget and his camera connected with and it was the withdrawn reality that made the sensual so powerful. His image are a trace of those encounters. Our encounter with them echoes that withdrawal/access tension as we enjoy the coffee table book, as the images resonate or evoke and yet something somewhere withdraws.

In The Genius of Photography TV series (1996), photographer Joel Meyerowitz makes strange Atget’s Coin du Quai Voltaire of 1916 by turning it upside down. When he has defamiliarised the image of the Paris street with its Colonne Morris, streetlamp, trees and cobbletsones, he sees Atget’s object: “[a] white zipper. Zip! Running right up the middle of the building”. For Meyerowitz, this is a ‘punctum’. This pricks him as it must have Atget. But the cemented up chimney flue can also be seen as a street object, alongside not above or underneath the Morris column or the window, just another object connecting with the wall and the tree and the light and the photographer and his stall of images for sale and…

Trees and Notre-Dame share the frame (1922) and the ontological space. Like the cluttered Collector’s Room (1910) or the barrels and gramophones in the Grocer and wine merchant (1912) everything and nothing is punctum.

When Atget wrote “Va Disparaitre” on the back of 41 Rue Broca in 1912, it was a note to himself and us that the building would soon disappear. Literally it would suffer the fate of La maison no 5 de la rue Thouin on the 10th August 1910. It would soon have its day of demolition with its new rubble objects nestling next to a blurred ghostly figure and a boy who seems to have stepped out of a Diane Arbus picture. But Atget is not nostalgic. Nor is he simply a recorder of passing time. His object-oriented sensibility knows that 41 Rue Broca disappears in another sense. As an object it disappears from access at the moment of taking and viewing in 1912 as much as it does a century later. Just as Atget knew it was sensually present for him and for us then and now, it was also out of reach it had already, inevitably and irrevocably disappeared. Withdrawn.

Atget’s Paris, often the name for the books published about him, as an object then and now for the Paris tourist board, Eurostar, Woody Allen, my iPhone and the wheel of Mark Cavendish’s bike is never fully there. It is not just a brand, an ideology, a metaphor or a sign, but it is also never fully accessible as a real object. Those objects encounter its sensual dimensions as did Atget, his camera and the light that fell on the Door knocker (1909) or the House of pleasure (1921) and rendered his albumen prints. Atget’s object-oriented sensibility emerges from his willingness to sink into that mesh of objects and sensual/real connections, to refuse the correlationist agenda offering him a subject as opposed to object position or some privileged access to Paris’ objects.


Benjamin, W., 2008, The Work Of Art In The Age Of Its Technological Reproducibility, And Other Writings On Media, Jennings, M.W., Doherty, B., & Levin, T.Y. eds. Translated by E. Jephcott, R. Livingstone & H. Eiland. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass..