Art & Photography

Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Paris

Photographer Christopher Rauschenberg rediscovers the sites captured by celebrated flâneur and early pioneer of photography, Eugène Atget, revealing a city constantly evolving and yet remaining, curiously, exactly the same

Eugène Atget photographed Paris from 1888 until his death in 1927. Like many people, I consider him the greatest photographer of all time. He documented the city in a straightforward way, his images evoking the feeling that all the transitory things that people make, all the things they do, are washed away, leaving only their transcendent evidence.

I have known Atget’s works from my earliest days as a photographer, seeking them out in books and museum shows whenever possible. On a trip to Paris in 1989, I suddenly found myself face to face with a spiral-topped gatepost that I knew very well from a photograph by Atget. I rephotographed his gatepost from memory and wondered how many other Atget subjects might still be holding their poses. When I found a familiar-looking stone stairway in another neighbourhood, I looked around for the huge, beautiful tree that in Atget’s photograph loomed over a flower vase on a corner post, but I could not find it. The flower vase on the other side of the stairs, however, did have a tree behind it, so I photographed that side instead. I wanted to match the poetic meaning of the image more than I wanted to show that the magnificent tree was gone.

In Paris that year, in the streets and places that Atget had admired, I resolved to return and explore with my camera whether the haunting and beautiful city of his vision still existed. Between 1997 and 1998, I made three trips to Paris and rephotographed five hundred of the outdoor scenes that Atget had photographed. (I could not, of course, revisit the interiors that he had pictured or recapture the people in his views.)

It is clear that the Paris of Atget’s vision still exists and is available to eyes that look for it. In central Paris, in particular, most of the places that Atget photographed are still there, and still posing. You can see the effects of weathering and acid rain on them; you can see the disrespectful marks of graffiti; and most of all, you can see that the magical streets of the city are choked with traffic and parked cars. However, among all the other Parises that coexist so thickly in one amazing metropolis, Atget’s Paris is still definitely and hauntingly there.

This is an excerpt from Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget’s Paris by Christopher Rauschenberg, published by Princeton Architectural Press