BERKELEY — Artists' ambitions may not have been smaller before the camera, but they surely were less exhaustive. Energetic and prolific as he was, even Michelangelo did not attempt to record all of 16th-Century Italy in painting and sculpture.
It took the development of photography to inspire August Sander's massive portrait of "People of the 20th Century," not to mention contemporary conceptualist Douglas Huebler's goal of photographing "everyone alive." And Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget (1857-1927) obviously needed a camera for his documentation of turn-of-the-century Paris, part of which is exhibited at the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley to March 15.
Atget's output was so staggering that it has taken four exhibitions with accompanying books to bring it into focus. Even at that, we have seen only a fraction of his work. "The Work of Atget: Modern Times," the final segment of the series--which follows "Old France," "The Art of Old Paris" and "The Ancient Regime" (all organized by John Szarkowski for the Museum of Modern Art in New York)--addresses ordinary life in the city.
Among the 117 photographs currently displayed are images of Parisian shops and window displays, modes of transport, entertainment centers and humble citizens earning their living--or getting by as bricklayers, delivery men, musicians, ragpickers, Gypsies and prostitutes.
A photo of a sideshow offers a giant and the smallest man in the world. Among other curiosities is a merry-go-round with caricatured people substituting for carrousel horses, designed for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs by Paul Poiret and carved by sculptor Pierre Vigoureaux. Amid boutiques and restaurants is the facade of the Cabaret de L'Enfer, with a ghoulish face and gaping mouth framing its door. A veritable parade of vehicles that preceded the automobile includes a horse-drawn milk truck and a two-wheeled ragpicker's cart pulled by the entrepreneur himself.
"Modern Times" fascinates viewers precisely because the photographs do not look up-to-date. With this work, however, Atget brought his beloved city into the 20th Century. Quaint and precious as they may appear, Atget's photographs offer a relatively straight report on the look of Paris from 1898 to 1927. Favoring a soft, gray light and misty atmospheres that shrouded deep space, he presented the details of vernacular life with a consistently gentle touch.
Though he is now revered as an artist and often cited as a pioneer of modern photography, Atget would probably be surprised to find his work in art museums. His photographs were never exhibited as art during his lifetime; instead he hung a sign on the door of his fifth-floor apartment offering "Documents pour Artistes" and sold his prints as reference materials.
Man Ray, who lived down the street from Atget, bought his photographs. So did Ray's assistant, photographer Berenice Abbott. So strongly did Abbott believe in Atget's work that in 1928 she bought 5,000 prints and plates from his estate. Forty years later, she sold the lot to the Museum of Modern Art.
Among the obvious benefits of that transaction is that Maria Morris Hambourg (who co-authored the four books with Szarkowski) has compiled a biography of Atget in the volume on "The Art of Old Paris." According to this still spotty account, Atget was born in Libourne, a port near Bordeaux. After an adequate education, he went to sea as a cabin boy.
By 1878 he had moved to Paris with the thought of becoming an actor. Being blessed neither with good looks nor theatrical experience, he was rejected on his first application to the National Conservatory of Music and Drama. Atget was accepted the second time around, but by then he was serving in the French Infantry and had to divide his time between the military and school. Apparently the combination didn't work. Atget was expelled from the conservatory and thus banished to a provincial acting career. Upon release from the infantry, he spent several years touring with a troupe of actors, presumably playing small parts in undistinguished productions for unappreciative audiences.
Around 1886 he fell in love with Valentine Delafoss Compagnon, an actress 10 years his senior who became his devoted companion until she died in 1926. Atget eventually dropped out of the theater, considered becoming a painter but took up photography instead, around 1888. Details of this career change are unknown, but he hung out his famous shingle about two years later, setting himself up as an independent businessman who could take commissions and cater to artists' needs.
As a documentarian, Atget had no artistic pretensions, but he became an artist in spite of himself. He soon distinguished himself by specializing in photographs of Old Paris, a subject that appealed to Parisians upset with Georges Eugene Haussmann's transformation of the city, and attracted as patrons museums, libraries and schools.