Prostitute, rue Asselin.
Eugène Atget first tried his hand as sailor, actor and painter before discovering his true vocation as a documentary photographer on the streets of Paris.
Documenting city life combined Atget’s passion for photography with his life as a flâneur. A flâneur is someone who strolls aimlessly through a city with no particular place to go—the route steered only by curiosity and chance. A flâneur dwells between the twin poles of private reverie and public space.
Novelist Charles Baudelaire first described a flâneur in an essay titled “The Painter of Modern Life” in 1863:
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…
Paris has long been hailed as the city of the flâneur. Its streets and boulevards invite perambulation and drift. Its arrondissements are filled with hidden beauty that trigger involuntary memory. Marcel Proust—the writer who coined the term “involuntary memory”—lived and worked in Paris. Like one of Proust’s characters, a flâneur wanders a city’s streets open to their “madeleine moment.”
Atget (1857-1927) wandered through Paris dressed in a large dark cloak, his camera and tripod in hand. He strolled, sauntered, until something triggered a response which he stopped to photograph. A chance encounter with a prostitute idling by her front door; a hawker selling wares from a cart; a maitre d‘s face at the door of a restaurant; a shop window filled with mannequins; or the empty cobbled street still fresh with the impression of activity.
Atget’s street photography captured a Paris that was fast changing. Its once golden age of the flâneur was being opened up to the motorcar and a system of signage, roads and roundabouts.
Atget lived in direst poverty throughout his life. For twenty years, it’s said, he lived on a diet of milk, bread and sugar. All other foods, he declared, were a poison. According to the American photographer Berenice Abbott who literally discovered Atget and his voluminous collection of photographs—or documents pour artistes:
In art and hygiene he was absolute. He had very personal ideas on everything which he imposed with extraordinary violence.
He applied this intransigence of taste, of vision, of methods, to the art of photography and miracles resulted.
Prostitute waiting at her front door, 1921.
Soldier with prostitute.
Three prostitutes, rue Asselin.
Two prostitutes at the corner of Boulevard de la Chapelle and rue de Fleury.
Mannequins, Avenue de Gobelins.
Boulevard de Strasbourg.
Coiffeur, Avenue de l’Observatoire.
Street musicians, circa 1898-99.
Rag collector, 1899.
People looking at the solar eclipse, 1912.
A l’Homme Arme rue des Blanc-Manteaux.
Rue de la Montagne.
Café, Avenue de la Grande Armée.
Shop on 26 rue Sainte Foy.
On the rue de la Montagne.
Rue du Figuier, 1924.