Eugène Atget: The Marvelous in the Everyday

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During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Atget took hundreds of photographs of classical statues, reliefs, fountains, and other finely wrought decorative fragments in Paris and its outlying parks. These images amount to a visual compendium of the heritage of French civilization at that time. At Versailles, Atget photographed gardens designed by landscape architect André Le Nôtre for King Louis XIV in the second half of the seventeenth century. Depicting white marble statues from low viewpoints, in full length, and against the dark, unified tones of hedges and trees, Atget brought them into dramatic relief, highlighting the theatrical possibilities of sculpture. Among the pictures he took at Saint-Cloud is a series centered on a pool surrounded by statues whose tiny silhouettes can be seen from a distance. Two pictures of the same statue taken three months apart, at Sceaux in March and June of 1925, look utterly different: in one case the statue is profiled against the denuded trees of winter, enveloped in the luminescent expanse of the sky; in the other it is absorbed into the trees’ foliage. The pictures reveal Atget’s keen exploration of optical phenomena. His interest in the variable play between nature and art through minute changes in the camera’s angle, or as functions of the effects of light and time of day, is underscored in his notations of the exact month and sometimes even hour when the pictures were taken.