Its vaguely exotic atmosphere of half-familiar accents, darling old-fashioned habits and appliances, captured (in the nick of time) by the salty old sentimentalist, is like a waxwork souvenir. The brash, raw American society that Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos saw and described with evident pity and contempt in their naturalistic pastiches--they either embraced this or reviled it. And in a way, both options are different versions of the same choice.
Eugene Atget [1857-1921] occupies a privileged place in the history of photography. Popularly regarded as a pioneer in the medium, he began to photograph in middle age, but regarded photography primarily as a way to make an honest living, though it's clear that he understood the artistic potential of his staged still-lifes of the architecture and landscape, the shopfronts and streets of Paris, selling his prints to artists as documentary source material. For thirty years, between 1897 and 1927, he continued to make prints, using an applied emulsion on glass plates. The equipment was bulky, heavy and inefficient by today's standards, and the slowness of the film coupled with its narrow range (steep straight line of tonal variance) meant that he couldn't make much out of high contrast subject matter, particularly compositions including open sky or space. Nevertheless, he was able to produce prints of great clarity and straightforward elegance.
Aware that many of the scenes and structure around him would eventually be demolished, he sought a record of them through his image file, and was even commissioned by the Paris Bureaus and the Carnavalet Museum to preserve and record landmarks in the city.
Atget's photographs were salvaged from oblivion largely through the efforts of Berenice Abbott, an American photographer living in Paris in the Twenties, who acquired a large cache of his prints and negatives, eventually placing these in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Her effort at promoting his work and preserving it is one of the great acts of curation in the history of art.
Because Atget's materials were old-fashioned, even outmoded, his images have a patina of age about them. Their deep sepia tinge, the glowing highlights, and burnished surfaces, and a persistent sense of absence--an effect of the lack of people--make them seem slightly stagy. Given the very slow speed of his film, candid unposed views of the movement of people or conveyances would have been impossible. This studied pace, often taken in the early morning before anyone was out and about, may seem deliberately to memorialize them. There is a nostalgic cast, even a sad resignation in their tarnished urban endurance, the vestiges of a civilization in majestic decay, of sadness welling up out of the stones and crumbling pavement. Atget's style is manifestly documentarian in approach, but the impression his images leave is anything but dry. Historically, but for a few exceptional instances which include automobiles or "modern" advertisements on walls or shopfronts, many of the views would have looked much the same a hundred years earlier. Crude wagons, river barges, cobbled passageways survive through the centuries like timeless landmarks.
When we look at these perspectives, their "emptiness" confirms that all those who lived inside them have perished, leaving only the abandoned evidence of a proud culture, their traffic and ephemeral concerns. This illusion is a quality both generic to the images themselves, and a characteristic of our belated regard. We are not drawn into the world these images portray, but held in a frozen stasis of indecision. We are distanced from them not only by the fragile antiquity of their means, but by their apparent refusal to embrace the commerce of reality. Paris becomes like a vast, huge museum of scenes, none more canonical or deliberate than any other.
Ansel Adams once remarked that the first time he saw these images--probably in the early 1930's--he was astonished by their evocative power, but that when he saw them again, decades later, he couldn't understand what had once moved him so much, they seemed lifeless and blank. Both apprehensions are correct, of course. They are empty, their technique is reductive, their approach tacit, neutral even. But it is just these qualities which, combined with the lack of a human presence, gives them their ghostly mystery. They're like a meditation upon absence, and recovered memory, except that in a sense they're an acknowledgment that nothing will be saved in the end, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, riding at the back of a train, reality receding faster than we can construct a valid simulacrum for it.
As I've discussed previously on this blog, silver process chemistry (and other allied processes in the early decades in the history of the technology of photography) is an organic reaction. Light sensitive surfaces are more than a metaphor for actual seeing. Our eyes are in fact light sensitive surfaces, which report successive sequences of imagery to the brain (Bergson). Slow down the brain's ability to process these sequences, and seeing is revealed as a riffle of planar positives passing through time at a rate we recognize as the actual speed of objects moving through space. The earthy, gelatinous emulsion, within which the silver salts are held in suspension, is like the numinous protoplasm of consciousness, a dense soup of nutrient matter, whose sepia-toned finish covers everything in a sheen of sensual, erotic tannin.
In the early decades of Modernism, design, architecture and city planning were obsessively focused on streamlining, simplification, and clarity. Le Corbusier and Gropius wanted to raze Europe's dense, crumbling old cities and put up high-rise egg-crates, whose inter-connections would be criss-crossed with right-angled grids. Life would be direct, pure and efficient. This initiative was popular in Germany and Russia and America in the 1920's, and had many names, but its net effect was the same. The charming picturesqueness of the Ancien Regime represented a world rapidly disappearing under the wheels of mechanization and determined improvement.
The American artistic émigré community understood perfectly: The quaint structure of pre-modern Europe, its foundation of cobbled old stone, genteel decay, and pompous traditions was the perfect backdrop for their disdainful fatalism and sophisticated play. Europe, unlike America, had tradition, and a long past, its cities and countrysides emanated the fertile cultivation of hundreds, thousands of years of thought, effort, human vanity and ingenuity.
Europeans were only too happy to pander to successive waves of American tourists and seekers of inspiration. The Europe that had fascinated and beguiled James and Wharton, may have seemed more fragile and doomed after World War I, but in photographs, the evidences of its former glories could be sewn into the fabric of the myths and legends that had survived them. Balzac and Stendhal and Maupassant and Flaubert had supplied the narrative(s). Atget would husband the disintegrating old world's monuments and tattered precincts into the modern world--a world without memories, without conscience, without remorse. The emptiness of his photographs is a testament to the alienation of the modern temper. Empty streets, shops, parks, arcades, cul-de-sacs, cafés, staircases, squares, gardens, palaces, canals, churches. . .all empty, all eminently photogenic, and many, many gone now.