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A Parisian Detour: Eugène Atget at MoMA
Photographer Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) made over 8,500 pictures of Paris during his prolific life as an artist - the romantic city's cobblestoned streets, its windows with store mannequins, luscious but tamed parks, mysterious courtyards, his own neighborhood in the 5th arrondissement, and much more - but he did not take one picture of the Eiffel Tower. Not one. A couple of reasons why this most recognizable symbol of Paris fails to show up is that didn't like to pander to the postcard set and he really didn't care. His Paris was more the ephemeral pre-modern city, a place of irregular streets and organ grinders, and less the modern city of planner Baron Haussmann's domineering boulevards and that new soaring engineering marvel constructed in the Champ de Mars in 1889.
A new exhibit at MoMA titled Eugène Atget: "Documents pour artistes," displays a handful of Atget's well-known images but, pleasingly for those already familiar with these works, many more less well-known pictures from MoMA's extensive collection. Curator Sarah Hermanson Meister has organized the works into six categories that serve as representative of Atget's body of work, ones that mimic the artist's own system of archiving his material. Working as a provider of photographic source material for artists, Atget grouped images into categories such as courtyards, certain types of Parisians (musicians, factory workers, prostitutes), parks (like Luxembourg, or a series on the splendid Parc de Sceaux, as shown at MoMA), store windows, and neighborhoods. The MoMA exhibit displays images that Atget printed himself. Though critic Walter Benjamin famously claimed that reproducible works such as photographs lack authenticity or aura, these images on MoMA's walls, made with Atget's hand, nevertheless seem to have it.
[Image: Eugène Atget. Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, June 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 6 11/16 x 8 3/4" (17 x 22.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden]
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