Nostalgia is an incurable disease, maybe even a personality trait or an acquired taste for that peculiar emotion of pain and pleasure, almost a sense of hopeless longing, when confronted with things from the past. This feeling seems to me to be at the core of much appreciation for art, literature, and poetry and of course, Photography. Probably present in most human cultures, I venture to suspect that this emotion is best described by the Portuguese word “saudade”: melancholy, spleen, and heartache. All these can be induced by the sense of smell and by hearing old music and sounds for instance, or by looking at paintings, drawings and especially photographs. Even those from a time long before we were born.
Far from being an antidote to the passing of time, photographs are the perfect way of inducing nostalgia and saudade because they are, more than paintings and drawings, a tangible and phenomenological trace of something that was undeniably there: they are proof of what the world looked like. In this, as in the very working of memory, they are instruments capable of inherent poetry. Photographers who feel this, and are confronted with the quick pace of a changing world, can fall prey to a sense of urgency in trying to record all things fading before it is too late. Stephan Vanfleteren mentioned something like this in an interview about his Belgian oeuvre, I humbly felt this in my years long series on Amsterdam – many locations now irretrievably lost – but no one must have thought so more than the greatest witness of urban change in the history of the medium: Eugene Atget.
Of course it would be reductive, very limiting to see this master’s life achievement merely as a document of the passage of times, although documents is exactly how he himself would define his images. Through the years I have been fascinated by his work, and bought every book about it that I came across thus ending up with something of a collection, not only of his photographs but also of how different editors and scholars have chosen to represent his work. These two things need to be kept distinct; least the second aspect would cloud our judgement of the first, which is the only true issue. So let us try to split the appreciation of an Atget in its basic components, regardless of what critics would have us think.
Pick any Atget and look at it.
Technically it looks old, somewhat faded, warm in tone, one or both upper corners incidentally vignetted by tilting the lens too far, the lens slightly wide angle, the skies burnt, the shadows black. Not a perfectionist, no technique for technique’s sake, and working with the tools of the 19th century.
The composition is always masterly, never dull, at times surprising, modern, playful, engaging, and deep.
Subject matter are the streets, the buildings, the interiors, landscapes, typically with very little or no people in them. He would include them or let them accidentally be there, or maybe avoid them, who knows. Policemen seemed to have had a penchant for being in the picture, as they are usually quite sharp when in the frame, while other passers by are motion blurred by the slow exposures. This would suggest their vigilance to have been, like today’s, a mostly static and boring occupation with the difference that they took being photographed probably like a welcome diversion or maybe even a compliment. Nothing like taking unauthorized pictures of cops today to feel the pang of years gone by from then. When shooting people on the streets, like on the Petit Metiers series, he seems to be looking for types other than being interested in individuals, and his approach seems as sympathetic as totally unjudgmental. His lens would take in life on the street as it stood before it, be it represented by a street vendor or by the fleeting couple of a soldier and a prostitute standing in a door way, both posing calmly, moving witnesses of dignified humanity. His vision is as democratic as can be, maybe even revolutionary . “He knew that those who really know how to look scarcely feel the need to say anything” (Jean Claude Lemagny – Atget the Pioneer) He didn’t leave any written explanation of his work.
An Atget print is never what you expect it to be. It looks like 19th hundred but was probably taken in the twenties of the 20th. Allegedly meant to be a document but being very poor at that and so much better at being something else that you can’t really point your finger to.
Combining all these apparently non cohesive aspects, you end up looking at a very powerful mix, mysteriously so as it may have been partly unintentional, like the effect of time, albeit obviously the work of a genius. All these layers combined concur to the creation of an unmistakable feeling of depth and meaning, if not didactic and obvious in its message, still extremely eloquent. Each and every print carries with it not only the description of its subject but also the very soul of its maker, of its time and place and that of photography itself. There is no better school or term of comparison or higher challenge than trying to emulate (not imitate) this, for us modern photographers, regardless of all the means at our disposal.
His real personality is shrouded in the mystery of another time and sensibility, the old France, when unaffected ness would be considered the subtlest form of politeness (Jean Claude Lemagny – Atget the Pioneer - Prestel). This didn’t prevent him from being obsessively productive, rather the opposite in fact. An estimated 10.000 photographs, on glass plates 18x24cm, representing a whole new vision of the world. By being humble and self effacing, and very hard working, he achieved what many of his contemporaries, lost in the meanders of fruitless pictorialism and their thirst for artistic recognition and personal success, utterly failed to accomplish: an original photographic vision and ultimately true greatness. Of course the rewards of all this were late in coming: after his death it took forty years of toil and dedication by another selfless talent, Berenice Abbott, finally to gain any recognition for this by now undoubted master. But it took her a lifetime, almost killed her in the process, marred her own career, and for very little reward. As the Moma was left with this great collection that she had saved from oblivion, taken over for a few dollars to nurture a sequel of publications and derivative profitable products that continue to this day, her struggle is witness to the unspeakable blindness and inner cruelty of cultural establishments, and it is no accident that this should ring true even now. One can only guess at the number of unknown masters left out by sheer negligence, laziness and lack of judgement on the part of those that should know better and be more adventurous and daring in their curatorial well-established high profile jobs. Of course there are no clear guidelines here, but wishing to play it safe is more damning than any mistake taken in the pursuit of meaningful work could be.
If his great contemporary Marcel Proust is anything to go by, surely we must agree with his idea that originality is, by its very virtue of being ahead of its time, bound to be misunderstood, and that it is not ambition and a yearning for honours and money that produce a masterpiece, but the habit of daily hard work. Maybe this is something that we, modern shamelessly self-promoting braggers, should bear in mind more often. Not only when we work, but also when we judge.