"For more than twenty years by my own work and personal initiative, I have gathered from all the old streets of Vieux Paris photographic plates, 18 x 24 format, artistic documents of the beautiful civil architecture of the 16th to the 19th century: the old hôtels, historic or curious houses, beautiful facades, beautiful doors, beautiful woodwork, door knockers, old fountains... This vast artistic and documentary collection is today complete. I can truthfully say that I possess all of Vieux Paris." — Eugene Atget
His views of villages and Paris in the early modern period were neither official nor representative. Picturesque farmsteads and village squares, old wells and wisteria climbing flaking house walls apparently interested him more than imposing facades. A freshly plowed field, a bare tree, a street flanked by windowless walls—such subjects were more to Atget's taste. Without artfully composing what he saw or charging it with atmosphere, he let things be as they were. And were it not for the sonorous sepia that suffuses the old prints with a nostalgic mood, many of his works might figure as textbook examples of "straight photography." It was things and places—houses, streets, plants that intrigued him, and his pictures rarely show human life directly. Atget went out very early in the morning, or used such long exposure times that chance passersby vanished from the image, or appear as ghost-like smudges.
Atget's Paris is a metropolis of sun-drenched courtyards and lanes, old bridges, and barges silently passing by. For the Historique de la Ville de Paris and the Bibliotheque Nationale—his most important patrons—the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Union des Arts Décoratifs, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, he recorded city blocks, buildings, elegant interiors, and stairwells, or architectural details such as portals, door knockers, even the details of a stucco decoration. Other series of works were devoted to wrought-iron grilles and balustrades, or the popular signs over the entrances to bistros. The Paris of the grand boulevards was not Atget's Paris.
Unlike many other photographers' work, Atget's shows barely any stylistic change, being apparently immune to current fashions. At most, one or the other courtyard picture might seem to contain an echo of concurrent Cubism, or a photograph like Porte de Bercy, sortie du PLM (1913) to exhibit a Constructivist bent. The displays in the Paris shop windows he recorded would be unthinkable without the "retour å l'ordre" of the 1920s or the Surrealist mystique of objects. Man Ray indeed reproduced four of these images in La Révolution surrealiste (1926).
The documentary photographs were supplemented with pictures of representatives of the "petits métiers" ——a door-to-door lampshade salesman, a baker, a postman, a hurdy-gurdy man accompanied by a singer. In Versailles, Atget captured women waiting for customers outside a brothel. And then there is his picture of asphalt workers (1899—1900), which spirits us back for a moment into the social reality of France over a century ago.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan