The Work Of Atget by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg. Volume 11. The Art of Old Paris. Spring Industries Series on the Art of Photography. The Museum of Modern Art. New York. Distributed by New York Graphic Society Books. Little, Brown and Company, Boston 192 pages, 117 plates and 95 reference illustrations. $40.00 hardbound.
The Museum of Modern Art has released its second volume of the photographs of Eugene Atget, The Art of Old Paris.
Atget's style of working extended back to Henri Le Secq, Charles Mar-ville, and others who photographed to preserve the treasures of French civilization. He persisted in their older methods of large format camera, glass plate negatives, and albumen prints.
Presented in this new volume are the results of Maria Morris Hambourg's efforts to reconstruct the life of Atget. The mysteries of his methodology have given way to specifics. The romance that was Atget has turned into a resolute intelligence.
We approach the city by water, up the Seine toward La Cite and Noire Dame, as Atget the sailor might. Several views from the embankments are followed by images of a new arrival to the city early in the morning, exploring empty plazas. A doorway, through which we see a courtyard, is followed by more doors and their decorations. Plate 28 shows dark windows with a half-turned figure in the stone above, diagonal lines in the arch giving the sensation of zooming in, being pulled through the opening, slipping inside to find cupids playing casually along the corners of the ceilings.
In these lifelike sculptures we see Atget's belief in the animus. His statues are alive: whispering chairs gather to converse; railings, like serpents, crawl slowly down the stairs. In the streets we see signs of nature and of beasts, with ghosts hiding in reflections.
The density of information contained in the biography, notes and illustrations provides the historical knowledge to understand the significance of certain cultural changes, such as Atget's effort to document the pictorial signs being removed in the advance of literacy. We can see through this knowledge, not only shapes, but a vision with meaning. The notes suggest Atget's feelings and associations for these objects and places. We can reconstruct their habits from the archaeological ruins of a departed people, and see the loss of our own; imagine our cities without ourselves.
"Other photographers have been concerned with describing specific facts (documentation), or with exploiting their individual sensibilities (self expression). Atget encompassed and transcended both approaches when he set himself the task of understanding and interpreting in visual terms a complex, ancient, and living tradition." John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs.
Hambourg is collaborating with Atget to introduce old Paris. She keeps her conjectures restrained, but her interpretations contribute to a richer admiration for the man and his city. No longer a myth, each becomes a complex character.
Why did Atget need to create an artificial Paris? He managed to make photographs that almost totally deny the twentieth century. In one plate cars are suddenly visible in the background; he worked hard to prevent metropolitan life from intruding on his vision of Paris. All my assumptions of Atget photographing Paris as he saw it overlook the fact that he saw it not as it was, but as it once had been. He worked to preserve what was being lost, and in the process created a Paris that never was.
"In his last years, an increasingly romantic Atget saw nature, myth, and history gradually take over the garden and, removing it from the world of comtemporary men, return it to its traditional place, the realm of poetic imagination." Maria Morris Hambourg p. 190
LEE Friedlander Factory Valleys. Ohio & Pennsylvania. Callaway Editions IV, 1982. 60 plates, $50.00 hardbound, $30.00 softbound.
Lee Friedlander has been studying the Museum of Modern Art's Atget Collection for several years. The uses he has made of this understanding are evident in Calloway Editions’ new publication: Lee Friedlander Factory Valleys.
In 1979 he was commissioned by the Akron Art Museum to document the industrial area of the Ohio River Valley.
At first glance, it seems he's up to his visual tricks: the collisions of near and far, bold vertical dividers, delicate tracery of winter branches. However, his vocabulary is not the assault it once was. The forms become essential to the description of the place. The effort to describe this particular river valley brings together his visual explorations into a comprehensive essay.
In Factory Valleys his seeing serves the tautness of industrial force (steel girders, smokestacks, drawbridges), indications of power and what it does to the land (giant steamshovels eating the earth). All the drabness, vulgarity, incongruity of industrial existence is described in a dead-end freeway terminated by piles of discarded tires. The unpeopled landscapes/city scapes most often resemble an abandoned war zone; we are peeking out to see if the coast is clear, to see what remains of value.
Friedlander has taken the symbol of Walker Evans' image of a bridge leading across to a hillside of neoclassical temples of commerce, inverted the hierarchy, increased the distance, darkened the vision, and pictured the hillside not as an organized place of worship, but as a threatened place of retreat, in the way that his portraits show people who have retreated inside themselves.
These are the first portraits that Friedlander has published, beyond a small circle of family and close friends. Part human, part metal, these creatures mirror the mechanical nature of the landscape. They arc not the heroic men and machines of Lewis Hines, Friedlander is photographing a way of life that is already passing, as Atget several years before recorded a vanishing Paris.
Friedlander's flash gently caresses the hands and face of the woman on the back cover, respectful of her privacy and her grace. The final portrait is of the patterns of an apron and dress, the gestures of hands and feet of a woman as if in the rhythms of a dance. His portraits are strongest when they address without coyness or subterfuge his attraction to these men and women in their work. He pays his respects with the delight of his eye.
Friedlander has detected and conveyed the rhythms of these factory valleys. He gives no causes, suggests no cures, but describes with his refined and confident eye the visible values of the settlements.
"What god could have predicted this reality and its inwardness of spirit, nature ravaged and transformed, human nature intact?” Leslie George Katz in the Afterword.
These photographers do not diminish our reality, but enhance our appreciation. They call attention to quiet sensations that reverberate in a sunlit backyard, or in the curve of a tree against a distant freeway. They exhibit a faith in what can be seen, and suggest new understandings of what we see,
By Paul Hester