Eugene Atget (1857-1927) sold his photographs for pennies, dressed in rags and patches, and lived on sugar, bread and milk. He was a prophet without honor. Though he sold his views of Paris, his "Documents for Artists," to Braque and other painters, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bibliotheque Nationale, those who bought his pictures did not think them art.
They had no way of seeing what all of us see now.
Atget was a master, but his mastery was posthumous.It is recognized most clearly in pictures made by others after he had died.
Behind Cartier-Bresson's "frozen moments" and Walker Evans' storefronts, behind Brassai's Paris portraits and the tree studies of Weston, we detect Atget's eye.
The remarkable collection of his rare vintage prints, now at Harry Lunn's, 3243 P St. NW, demonstrates how deeply these men are in his debt.
His visions were predictive. In Antonioni's movies of empty city streets, in Richard Estes' urban paintings of ambiguous reflections and Lee Friedlander's lush portraits of large and eerie plants, we see, yet again, things Atget showed us first.
For more than 30 years he wandered Paris and its suburbs, weighed down by the heavy tripod on his shoulder. His pictures seem to glow; his contact prints were made on gold chloride paper. Even by the standards of the 1890s, his equipment was old-fashioned.
But his style wasn't. Many things he photographed -- horse-drawn cabs and gas lamps, a shop window full of stayed, wasp-waisted corsets -- vanished years ago, but his pictures have about them a shocking modernity.
Though he earned his meager living selling views to artists -- who used them as sketches -- he never tried to make his photos look like paintings. They are free of affectation, pretension and contrivance.
Atget liked photographing landscapes, the old monuments of Paris, and the crumbling urns and statues of nearby country houses. For the series he entitled the "petits metiers ," he made extraordinary pictures of the city's tradesmen, its butchers, bakers, peddlers, hoteliers and prostitutes.
The librarians who purchased the albums of Atget regarded them as documents. Only in the 1920s, when his life was almost over, did a few "young foreigners" -- Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, and their friends, the surrealists -- begin to call attention to the magic and the poetry pulsing in his art.
Though wholly unadorned, his art is constantly surprising. His shot of the "Palais du Senate" might seem a postcard picture were it not for the black dog staring at the wall. He took a picture of the palace at Versailles in which the stormy clouds, as if summoned by some sorcery, choreograph themselves to reinforce his composition.
Eugene Atget was born in 1857 in a small town near Bordeaux. He worked first as a cobin boy, traveling the seas, later as an actor. He was nearly 40 when he discovered his metier.
His ambition, said Atget, was to "create a collection of all that which both in Paris and its surroundings was artistic and picturesque." Those terms are not well-chosen. Artistic and picturesque are words that today imply the arch and artificial. His art is not like that. He did not seek the pretty. His art is innocent, direct.
All students of photography today acknowledge its importance. The most expensive prints at Lunn's cost more than $5,000. ("The French Garden as Photographed by Atget," an exhibition organized by Washington's Howard Adams, incidentally, will open in London in the spring. Jacqueline Onassis is editing the book that will accompany that show.)
Atget died in poverty. "One morning," wrote his friend, Andre Calmette, "a messenger brought a scrap of paper on which were traced six tragic words... "I am in agony come quickly!'... We went at once... Too late. Atget could not be saved. For 20 years he had lived on milk, bread, and bits of sugar. Nobody, nothing, could convince him that these were not the only useful nourishment; all other food was dangerous to him. In art and hygiene he was absolute."
This collection of nearly 100 prints will remain on view through Feb. 24.