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July 18, 1993|Randy Leffingwell

ATGET PARIS Presentation de Laure Beaumont-Maillet (Hazan/Ginko Press, 24 10th St., Santa Rosa, Calif. 95401: $55.; 787 pp.). It has never been possible to get enough Eugene Atget. The books done previously, monographs published by Aperture or university presses, collections assembled by his admirer, Berenice Abbott, only piqued the appetite. There was never a gourmand's publication of Atget.

Until now.

This is primarily a photographer's feast. The volume contains only 24 pages of text; more than half of that is in French, and this is the American edition. Chapters are divided in the same way that Atget categorized his work, by arrondissement , that is, by the postal districts of Paris. Captions at the bottom of each page identify the location of the building or the occupation of the individual shown. The index at the back is organized by street name.

Atget produced what he called "Documents for Artists," beginning in 1890. In this work he not only helped give birth to the genre of documentary photography, but he also recorded Paris. By the time he died in 1927 at age 70, he had made more than 6,000 glass negatives and had sold more than 15,000 prints. He viewed himself as a failed painter and so his photographs were made as study materials for those who succeeded. But those painters whose styles ripped off Dufy or Buffet stole from Atget first of all. Shooting at dawn and dusk, in sunlight and fog, he made images that presaged the Impressionists, the Surrealists, the Fauvists (Derain, Utrillo and Vlaminck were among his regular clients), and of course, the photo-realists.

Once his reputation was established, he was offered assignments from the city. A Commission for Old Paris was established in order to cater to the growing interest in the city's heritage. Atget documented not only street scenes and city life but he also produced a kind of catalogue of architectural details and generalities. This book dispels some of the romantic notions--and untruths--about Atget. Photography students will breathe a sigh of relief to learn that Atget was neither impoverished nor unrecognized.

The irony of Atget's lifetime achievement becomes clear the further one explores his work. Yes, some of the images--especially some photographs made for the Old Paris Commission--are almost tedious. Pages in this book, justifiably, are dedicated to nearly identical views of nearly identical buildings: same camera position, same light, same lens. But even in the most mundane views, Atget's composition leads the viewer to wonder what is around the next curve of the road or what hides just inside the single open doorway.

For the student of photography, this book is a must-have. For the Francophile who loves Paris, it is an absolute necessity. For photographers, historians and theatrical and motion-picture set designers, this is also an essential resource. But there can be too much of a good thing, perhaps even too much Atget. When one is hungry, it is easy to over-indulge.

So, for all those who have long suffered Atget-deprivation, here's advice: Do buy this book. But sample it in moderation.

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