top of page

Eugène Atget's Glorious Photographs Of 1900s Paris

Updated: May 19

Paris, a city synonymous with romance, art, and culture, has been immortalised in myriad forms throughout history. Yet, perhaps no single body of work captures the essence of early 20th-century Paris quite like the photographs of Eugène Atget. His images, steeped in the atmosphere of a bygone era, provide an invaluable visual chronicle of the City of Light during a period of profound transformation.

Street paver, 1899.

The city’s urban landscape had been recently reshaped by the modernisation campaign known as Haussmannisation—a necessarily destructive process led by (and named after) Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann that saw Paris’s medieval neighbourhoods razed and transformed into wide avenues and public parks.

Rag picker, 1899.

Those changes, in turn, kindled a broad interest in vieux Paris (“old Paris”), the capital in its pre-Revolutionary, 18th-century form.

Eugène Atget was born in 1857 in Libourne, a small town in southwestern France. His journey to becoming one of the most celebrated photographers of his time was anything but straightforward. Initially pursuing a career in acting, Atget found his true calling in photography in the late 1880s. By the turn of the century, he had dedicated himself to documenting the streets, architecture, and daily life of Paris with an almost obsessive fervour.

Eugénie Buffet, c.1920.

Atget’s feeling for vieux Paris had been an integral part of his practice of making documents for other artists, but around 1900 that interest took centre stage, as he established himself as a specialist in pictures of Paris.

Indeed, his calling card from the period read, “E. Atget, Creator, and Purveyor of a ‘Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris.’”After taking a photograph, Atget would develop, wash, and fix his negative, then assign the negative to one of his filing categories with the next consecutive number that he would write the negative number in graphite on the verso of the negative and also scratch it into the emulsion.

La Villette, a sex worker in 1921.

He contact-printed his negatives onto pre-sensitised, commercially available printing-out papers; albumen paper, gelatin-silver printing-out paper, or two types of matte albumen paper that he used mainly after WW1.

The negative was clamped into a printing frame under glass and against a sheet of albumen photographic printing out paper, which was left out in the sun to expose.

The frame permitted inspection of the print until a satisfactory exposure was achieved, then Atget washed, fixed, and toned his print with gold toner, as was the standard practice when he took up photography.

La Villette, rue Asselin, a sex worker on her shift in front of her door, 1921.

Atget did not use an enlarger, and all of his prints are the same size as their negatives. Prints would be numbered and labeled on their backs in pencil then inserted by the corners into four slits cut in each page of albums.

Additional albums were assembled based on a specific theme that might be of interest to his clients, and separate from series or chronology.

Three women in a doorway on rue Asselin, 1924.

Atget’s work was largely driven by his deep affection for the city and a desire to preserve its rapidly changing landscape. The dawn of the 20th century was a period of significant urban renewal in Paris, spearheaded by Baron Haussmann’s grand reconstruction plans from the mid-19th century. This transformation saw medieval neighbourhoods give way to the broad boulevards and uniform facades that define much of modern Paris.

Atget’s photographs are a poignant reminder of what was lost during this period of modernisation. His images capture the narrow alleyways, bustling markets, and ornate shopfronts that characterised the old Paris. Through his lens, we are granted a glimpse into the soul of a city in the midst of metamorphosis.

During World War I, Atget temporarily stored his archives in his basement for safekeeping and almost completely gave up photography. Valentine’s son Léon was killed at the front.

From 1920–21, he sold thousands of his negatives to institutions. Financially independent, he took up photographing the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud, and Sceaux and produced a series of photographs of prostitutes.

Hotel de Montmorency – Rue de Montmorency 5, 1900.

Berenice Abbott, while working with Man Ray, visited Atget in 1925, bought some of his photographs, and tried to interest other artists in his work.

She continued to promote Atget through various articles, exhibitions and books, and sold her Atget collection to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Atget’s approach to photography was remarkably straightforward. He used a large-format camera, which required long exposure times and considerable patience. This method allowed him to capture an extraordinary level of detail and depth, imbuing his photographs with a timeless quality.

Atget’s compositions are meticulously crafted. He often employed a slightly elevated vantage point, lending his images a sense of grandeur and perspective. His keen eye for symmetry and balance is evident in the way he framed his subjects, be it the intricate wrought ironwork of a balcony or the austere facade of a Parisian building.

Moreover, Atget had a unique talent for capturing the interplay of light and shadow, which added a layer of texture and mood to his photographs. This mastery of chiaroscuro is particularly evident in his images of the city’s parks and gardens, where dappled sunlight filters through the trees, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.

Marchand d’abat-jour (lampshade seller), rue Lepic, 1900.

In 1926, Atget’s partner Valentine died, and before he saw the full-face and profile portraits that Abbott took of him in 1927, showing him “slightly stooped…tired, sad, remote, appealing”, Atget died on 4 August 1927, in Paris.

Atget’s documentary vision proved highly influential, first on the Surrealists, in the 1920s, who found his pictures of deserted streets and stairways, street life, and shop windows beguiling and richly suggestive (these were published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1926, with a fourth, of a crowd gathered to watch an eclipse, on the cover); and then on two generations of American photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander.

Au soleil d’or – place de l’Ecoles, 1902.

His reception outside France was also shaped by The Museum of Modern Art. In 1968 the Museum purchased the contents of his studio from the American photographer Berenice Abbott, who was first introduced to Atget’s work in 1925, while she was working as a studio assistant for Man Ray.

Abbott became Atget’s posthumous champion, initiating the preservation of his archive and its transfer to New York. Comprising some 5,000 vintage prints and more than 1,000 glass plate negatives, it represents the largest and most significant collection of his work.

Street musicians, 1898.

Atget’s oeuvre is not merely a collection of aesthetically pleasing images; it is a comprehensive archive of Parisian life. His work encompasses a wide array of subjects, from the grand boulevards and stately architecture to the humble street vendors and quaint corner shops. Each photograph serves as a historical document, providing insight into the social and cultural fabric of early 20th-century Paris.

One of Atget’s most compelling series is his documentation of Parisian shopfronts. These images reveal a rich tapestry of everyday life, capturing the diversity and vibrancy of the city’s commercial districts. From the elaborate window displays of high-end boutiques to the cluttered interiors of local grocers, Atget’s photographs celebrate the artisanal spirit and entrepreneurial energy of Paris.

In 1931, four years after Atget’s death, the American photographer Ansel Adams wrote, “The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”

Despite the undeniable quality and significance of his work, Atget remained relatively unknown during his lifetime. It was not until the later years of his life, and indeed after his death in 1927, that his genius was fully recognised. His work was championed by notable figures such as the American photographer Berenice Abbott and the influential art dealer Julien Levy, who played pivotal roles in bringing Atget’s photographs to a wider audience.

Today, Atget is revered as a pioneer of documentary photography. His images have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of early 20th-century Paris and continue to inspire photographers and artists around the world. The Musée Carnavalet in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are among the institutions that house significant collections of Atget’s work, ensuring that his legacy endures.



bottom of page