Simply Perfect Or Perfectly SImple
I visited the Art Gallery of NSW today to see the exhibition of photographs by Eugéne Atget. These are not reproductions - Atget's method of working was so direct that enlargement or reduction would be pointless - the images shown were framed originals. As such they declared the vision of the man as clearly as they showed his subject matter.
Atget worked in Paris - France, not Kentucky - between 1880 until the 1930's. He viewed the city as a series of themes - shopfronts, street corners, tradesman's displays, vehicles, etc. and made images based upon these divisions. They were made with a 7" x 9.5" glass plate camera with movements, mounted upon a tripod, and I should say from the ones I saw, exposed with natural light. The plates were tray-developed and the prints made on POP fixed and gold-toned. The prints are contact type and are in tones that range from dark sepia to brown.
The Gallery matted and framed them quite simply and then Tek-screwed them to the walls. All three billion of them.
Well, it seemed like that - I imagine there were only two hundred but after the first fifty it all became a blur. I was left wondering whether it was a blur to Eugéne too.
Perhaps not. The literature said that he made albums and sold commercial prints of his work during his career. He seems to have derived an income, if the evidence of a couple of pictures of his sitting room is to be believed - he looks to have been a reader as well as just a peripatetic viewer of shopfronts. As his work is organised into divisions, I am willing to think that he intended these divisions for some artistic or commercial purpose. And I salute his technique with the negative - one of his plates is shewn over a light box and I can recognise real talent in exposure, composition, and development.
But oh, that brown murk of POP paper. It seems to veil everything and draws some subjects to a flat level that, frankly, removes any charm from them. Eugéne saw the artistry and the French academics see the history, but I am left looking at a dull brown picture of a street corner...
Different when he incorporates a person, or a Maison Close, or a vehicle - I was delighted to see the old Renault and note that the business of a parking brake on a sloping street was easily done with a brick under the back tyre. Interiors too, had their charm - they seem to bear more clearly the stamp of their occupier than a shopfront or a courtyard.
Am I being presumptuous in criticising one of the published greats? Yes, and you can poke fun at me for it. But I cannot help but think that a number of the images are best preserved in the French Roads Board scrapbook or as reference for some academic rather than being presented as masterpieces.
Perhaps a little experiment is in order. When I get home I shall look out a book I own on Atget (!) and illegally transfer one of the images into my computer via my scanner. Then I shall immorally redo it by losing the dull sepia and giving it a crisp black and white rendition. And I shall see if there is beauty there or just utility. I should hesitate to do this to most of the images I admire but in this case I am curious to know what would have been had the materials changed.