A Vision of Paris
A Life in Photography
The World Through My Eyes
Photographs by Cartier-Bresson
The art in photography is literary art before it is anything else: its triumphs and monuments are historical, anecdotal, reportorial, observational before they are purely pictorial. Because of the transparency of the medium, the difference between the extra-artistic, real-life meaning of things and their artistic meaning is even narrower in photography than it is in prose. And as in prose, “form” in photography is reluctant to become “content,” and works best when it just barely succeeds in converting its subject into art—that is, when it calls the least attention to itself and lets the almost “practical” meaning of the subject come through.
This is why there are so many pictures made with documentary intent among the masterpieces of photography. But they have become masterpieces by transcending the documentary and conveying something that affects one more than mere knowledge could. The purely descriptive or informative is almost as great a threat to the art in photography as the purely formal or abstract. The photograph has to tell a story if it is to work as art. And it is in choosing and accosting his story, or subject, that the artist-photographer makes the decisions crucial to his art. Everything else—the pictorial values and the plastic values, the composition and its accents—will more or less derive from these decisions.
The art of Eugène Atget, who was born in 1856 and died in 1927, is the art of the Complete Photographer. I can think of no one else who can be called that. Atget’s activity as a photographer—he had tried to be a painter and an actor—was confined to the last three decades of his life. He lived and worked in and around Paris, and the time and the place must help explain his achievement as they do that of all the other great artists who were his contemporaries and neighbors. Atget’s vocation, as he himself was conscious of it, was to make “documents pour artists.” If ever an artist humbled himself before his subjects, Atget did. He was not after beautiful views; he was out to capture the identity of his subject, and the success with which he did so has to be called “classical.”
The passing of time adds to the aesthetic value of many photographs, and does so legitimately, which is part of the reason why photography is the historical art par excellence. The way, however, in which Atget makes the animate and inanimate surfaces of the Paris of the belle époque speak transcends period flavor in the way that art of the remoter past does, and in the way, too, that the boulevard views painted by the Impressionists do. An abstracting, organizing eye had its part in this, and Atget was a tremendous pictorial as well as illustrative artist; yet it derived from his feeling for the illustrated subject, and his “pictorialism” was largely, and properly, unconscious.
Like other great photographers, Atget could at times extract a more intensely human—i.e., literary—interest from signs and traces of the human presence than…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.