The photographer Euge ne Atget (1857-1927) was the humblest of heroes. He made 10,000 photographs and peddled them for pennies, he lived for 20 years on bread and milk and sugar, he often dressed in rags. Though his medium was new, Atget all his life distrusted the newfangled. Though he is now known throughout the world, he never yearned for fame.
Two Atget exhibitions are now on view in Washington. Both of them are radiant. One -- the first of four linked theme shows to be drawn from his vast archive at the Museum of Modern Art -- is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Its subject is "Old France." A second, broader collection of his images is on view, and on sale, at Harry Lunn's, 406 Seventh St. NW. These two shows, glimpsed together, make his special genius plain.
Atget wasn't the first great photographer. He was the first great modern photographer. His art, though prophetic, never pounds or preens. Euge ne Atget's modernity, like so much else about him, is modest to the core.
Atget, who worked for 30 years compiling a document of old France, a culture by then dying, was born in 1857 in a small town near Bordeaux. We know little of his life. We know he went to sea when young, and that he later worked as an actor and a painter. He was nearly 40 when he discovered his me'tier.
Photographers, before Atget, followed one of two fixed paths. Most decided early on whether they would be scientists or artists. Julia Margaret Cameron, who posed her fresh-faced maidens in togas (that meant Greece) and flowers (that said innocence), adored the hot-house affectations of high Victorian painting. The American Mathew Brady, who took his camera to war, was less esthete than reporter. The same holds for his colleagues -- E.J. Muybridge, Carlton Watkins, William Henry Jackson and Timothy H. O'Sullivan, to name just a few -- who lugged their cameras out West. Though their art was free of artifice, the wonderful and awful things they so carefully recorded -- geysers, deserts, balanced rocks, corpses on the battlefield -- were sure to evoke gasps.
Atget's art is different. No painterly esthetic or symbolic baggage weighs upon it. He rarely portrayed people, his shots are never posed. Nor did he attempt to report the shocking or dramatic. In 30 years of documenting Paris and its suburbs, he never took a photograph of the Eiffel Tower.
Atget was at once scientist and artist. He was a lover of the past, but he photographed the beauty of old France -- its cobbled streets and churches, its ponds and lanes and trees, its doorways and its tradesmen -- with a scientist's detachment and an archivist's calm. His art is equitable, unforced and serene. What makes it so modern is its freedom from contrivance. He never shows us what he knew, only what he saw.
Because he loved the unpretentious -- peddlers and storefronts, benches, worn steps, haystacks, a vine beside a door -- his art may appear simple. But its simplicity deceives. The straightest of his pictures, that rose beside the shutter, that gate into the garden, those tree-roots in the park, seems somehow drenched in mystery. These simple things so cleanly seen belong to something larger, something far from simple. Each of Atget's photographs seems to dream of France.
His pictures seem to glow with something other than sunlight. There is in Atget's art a hint of the invisible. Though human beings appear but rarely in his pictures, his images seem haunted. We see a skiff beside a bank and cannot help but wonder who made that boat, who left it there? Whose slippered feet in ancient times walked along that woodland path, who hung that bird cage by the door, who has vanished round that bend in the road?
On Atget's little Paris shop was a sign that read "Documents for Artists." He sold photographs to Braque, Utrillo and Man Ray. It was Man Ray's assistant, the young Berenice Abbott, who, shortly after Atget's death, bought up his vast archive and preserved his name. She was among the first, though surely not the last, to sense in him a prophet. In Walker Evans' storefronts, in the complex tree studies of Lee Friedlander and John Gossage, in Weegee's portraits of New York, and in a thousand other pictures, we sense Atget's eye.
Atget at his straightest is best seen at Lunn, where his details of Paris, the interiors of its churches, the railings of its stairs, the knockers of its doors, have been grouped with care by curator Robert Mann. The prints now at the Corcoran (a number of them modern ones, made recently from the old glass negatives acquired by the Modern when it bought the Atget-Abbott archive in 1968) tend to show him at his subtlest.
Atget, after photographing a tree, a street corner, a house, would often let years pass before returning to the same spot and making what seems to be a wholly different photograph, although taken from the same point of view. The tree had aged, the light had changed, Frenchmen by the hundreds had passed through that dark door.
Atget, the documentarian, was the first photographer to record the always-shifting beauty that glows in the mundane. Atget, the artist, left behind an almost scientific study of photography's potentials. He was one of the first modernists to cleanse himself of all the ancient rules with which the history he loved so well had imprisoned art.
Three additional Atget exhibitions -- "The Art of Old Paris," "The Ancien Regime," and "Modern Times," all partially funded by Spring Mills -- eventually will come to the Corcoran from the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition there now, "The Work of Atget: Old France," closes March 7. The show at Lunn's will be on view through Feb. 18.