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Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget

Atget

Berenice Abbott. Eugène Atget, Paris, 1927. Gift of Graham Nash.

Also known as
Eugène Atget
Date of birth
Date of death

Eugène Atget spent three decades photographing the city of Paris, capturing local traditions, establishments, and tradespeople even as they vanished in an increasingly industrialized world. He worked alone and used a large, heavy view camera to record everything from architectural elements to streets to tree roots. Atget had a keen eye for the larger stories these details had to tell. 

From his studio in Paris, individuals could order copies of his prints, but most of his sales were to museums, libraries, and government agencies. Atget sold more than 16,000 prints to institutions in Paris alone. His photographs were also acquired, singly or in albums, by such notable painters as Georges Braque, André Derain, and Maurice Utrillo.

Near the end of Atget’s life, his photographs gained new value in two very different ways through the attentions of a pair of American expatriate photographers, Man Ray and his assistant Berenice Abbott. To Man Ray’s surrealist eye, Atget’s images of ordinary objects and isolated places took the banal and made it provocative, mysterious—turning overlooked details into a haunting mix of fact and imagination. To Abbott, who helped bring an archive of 8,000 Atget prints to the United States and later made new prints from his negatives, the Frenchman was an epic documentarist for a great city undergoing seismic changes. 

The Art Institute holds nearly 200 works by Atget that range from an archival group of 127 photographs of garden architecture at Versailles, to key single images acquired from Julien Levy, a retired New York dealer in Surrealism who had financed Abbott’s landmark purchase of Atget prints some 50 years earlier.

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