Tag Archives | Eugene Atget

Walker Evans, Architectural Photographer

photo: Walker Evans

The American Walker Evans began taking photographs in earnest in the latter part of the 1920s. The native Midwesterner had moved to New York after spending time in Europe, where he had hoped to launch a literary career that never quite took off. His earliest photographic efforts were promising, but he improved considerably after seeing the work of a number of other photographers whose work was being shown in New York, many of them by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, called simply ‘291.’ Among the artists and photographers Evans befriended during this time was Berenice Abbott, who had also just returned from her stint in Paris with the huge cache of Atgets she’s rescued. It’s impossible to say exactly how much Evans was influenced by the Atgets he saw, but there’s little question that his imagery shifted to a closer formal alignment with that of the Parisian’s.

By 1935 Evans, who had securely established his own style, was hired by the Farm Security Administration, along with a number of other distinguished photographers to document America in the depths of the Depression. Not one to follow orders well, he saw this as an opportunity to explore his own aesthetic and social concerns, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the agency’s head, Roy Stryker, a non-photographer. Evans was at his most creative during this time, making most of his best known images between 1935 and ’38.

Not only does the 1935 New Orleans image above show us one of the craziest looking barber shops ever to exist, featuring a woman grinning in a black and white spiderweb blouse, but it also illustrates Evans’ rigorous formal strategy. What at first glance appears to be a straightforward image of a storefront on closer inspection reveals a great deal more. By including portions of elements, the wrought iron balconies above, the window of the shop next door on the left, the door on the right, and the headlight, bumper and tire of a car, a world beyond the frame is alluded to. Having a sense of what these elements would have looked like in their entirety the barber shop can be seen as merely an interlocked piece in a complicated urban jigsaw puzzle.

A Legacy Preserved

photo: Berenice Abbott, New York

Although many of Atget’s prints had either been purchased by or donated to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris during his lifetime, no provisions had been made for the vast collection of prints and negatives still in the photographer’s possession when he died in 1927.  Berenice Abbott, Man Ray’s assistant at the time and a photographer in her own right, had befriended Atget during his last days and had seen enough of the elderly photographer’s work to appreciate the value of it.  She was the creator of the last portraits of Atget.  Just before they were about to be relegated to the garbage heap, Abbott rescued Atget’s cache of images, his life’s work, and returned to her native New York where she donated it to the fledgeling Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping.

His photographs were not the only aspect of Atget’s legacy that Abbott dedicated herself to, for she was also to spend the rest of her distinguished career employing the lessons learned from his photography in her own work.  Far from being a slavish imitator, she instead used his clear, direct approach to inform her own distinctive photographic ends, documenting the city of New York.  As Atget had done in Paris before her, Abbott made it part of her mission to create final visual essays of New York’s soon to be demolished landmarks just ahead of the wrecking ball.

Welcome to the Master Class Blog

photo: Eugene Atget, 1925

In order for all Master Class participants to share their work with each other between live sessions, we’ve created this blog.  Any images, series, ideas, concepts or questions you would like to post you’re welcome to do so here.  If you’ve come across a photograph which uses a technique or achieves an effect you’d like to know more about put it up for the group’s dissection.  When you see an image that you feel your classmates might benefit from seeing too, be it someone else’s or one of your own, or the results of an assignment that’s proving to be particularly challenging post it to our blog.  Participation will be entirely voluntary, of course, with the primary purpose of stimulating the discussion of photography, architecture and interior design.

When asked why he thought Eugene Atget, who took the photograph above, was such a great photographer, Garry Winogrand thought for a moment and said, “He knew where to stand.”  Where the photographer has chosen to stop and point his or her camera and at what instant the decision has been made to capture an exposure is the essence of all great photography.  Atget’s ability to do this so well, so often and for so long is what made him great, as is evident from this image of Notre Dame as seen from across the Seine.  The obvious choice, one made by many photographers before and since, would have been to move the camera to a position where this winter tree would not have obscured the cathedral, and Atget would have made an instantly forgettable picture if he had followed suit.  But to have placed the camera in such a position as to put the tree smack in the center of the frame and in front of Notre Dame was a conscious and deliberate choice, one that insists the viewer take everything within the frame into account.  There is no hierarchy of things in Atget’s photographs, they are all equally important.  The layering of visual information also gives the space represented a greater sense of depth, suggesting what it might have been like to stand at that place on the Quai de la Tournelle in Paris in 1925.