The End of the Romance
Elizabeth Glassman interviews John Szarowski and Maria Morris Hambourg on the work of Atget.
John Szarkowski is the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art and Maria Morris Hambourg is a photographic historian. They are co-authors of The Work of Atget, four volumes published by The Museum of Modern Art to accompany the four exhibitions focused on the work of Eugene Atget. The third exhibition in that series, The Anden Regime, opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on October 13, and will run through December 18. The Museum of Modern Art's Atget collection includes 5,000 prints and 1,000 negatives purchased from Berenice Abbott who purchased them from the photographer's estate in 1928.
The following interview by photographic historian Elizabeth Glassman is the result of separate conversations, in Houston, with Szarkowski and Hambourg.
EG: Maria, when did you become interested in the work of Atget?
MMH: I had written about Atget as an undergraduate at Wellesley and when I arrived at the Museum of Modern Art as an intern under John in the Department of Photography, I was still fascinated. During the year as an intern, I studied the Museum of Modern Art's Atget collection at night. This was not my job. It was just on my own. Five thousand photographs, a lot of table space, a year and a passion.
As things wore bubbling up to the surface, I proposed to write my dissertation for Columbia on one particular series of Atget's work that does not exist at the museum. I thought that by working on this series, which I assumed I would find in Paris, I would be able to tell a little more about the Museum of Modern Art collection. John was extremely enthusiastic and supportive.
When I returned to New York from Paris, John and I decided to co-author a book on the work of Atget. The number of volumes at that time was determined. Then began a long and basically reductive process of going through the work on a picture-by -picture basis, deciding which pictures were worthy as documents and which were more exceptional, those that transformed the documentary impulse into a lasting statement beyond the simple record of the object. When we realized that there was three times more than we could publish, we had to go back to the drawing board. In a real communal effort, we were finally able to knead the material into four volumes.
These follow approximately the same division of subject matter that Atget himself had devised: the first — old France - the most basic, which is to say the land itself, the support of this traditional civilization which was France; second, the urban civilization which crowned that, the art of old Paris; third, the Ancien Regime. This was John's idea. He understood the pictures in an historical sense, that Atget was recording something that was on its last leg. The perception was very definitely a romantic, or nostalgic one.
The fourth volume was the hardest. Atget had already figured this series out and we stuck fairly clearly to his parameters. Atget called it "picturesque Paris," but the word "picturesque” has changed so drastically, that we hardly use it any more. In thinking about what photographs of Paris of Atget's day announce to us in a two-word phrase, the Charlie Chaplan movie "Modern Times'' came to mind. The subject is that moment of transformation of the traditional society of horsedrawn cabs into a modern metropolis with subways, and how the values of people were effected as they made that transition.
EG: John, in an essay entitled “Photographing Architecture." (Art in America, Summer 1959), you said the following: "Photography will express more than a polite and circumscribed interest in a building's superficial form. It will, in its own language, suggest the impetus of human need underlying that form and explore the personal and social act of creative building. Photography assumes that subject matter because it lies in the world of human values, where the camera is most at home." Then in 1972, for an exhibition titled Atget's Trees, you wrote "a study of his repeated investigation of the same or similar subjects, on the other hand, suggests a conscious and sophisticated concern with the ultimately formal problems of picture making. " On one hand exists the idea of the camera in the world of human values and on the other the emphasis on the formal problems of picture making. How do these two ideas relate to your thinking about Atget now?
JS: I think I still believe in both. When I say formal problems of picture making I mean straight lines or rectangles, triangles or shallow space, the problem of how one uses photography to describe an idea. The idea modifies one's sense of how you can use the machine and the machine modifies one's sense of what other possible ideas are consummate with the mechanical capacities. Then learn how those potentials can be related to and express human values and the whole business of human investigation. It seems to me that is what formal problems are. What is the difference between being a person of good heart or good intentions or pure soul and being an artist. I mean one doesn't follow the other. Being a concerned citizen doesn't make one an artist or politician or any other effective instrument. One must learn the formal potentials of politics. This is a difficult question for me because I once thought I knew the difference between the form and the content of a work of art, but long ago I forgot and now I cant tell the difference any more. In reference to the question you asked, I don't think there was ever the thought that the work was more uniquely rooted in a concern for the human significance of the subject matter, the raw material, than for Atget. This was not separate from his sense of the potentials of what photography could do, especially not when he got older and better, and better, and better. You can no longer — you simply can't — make a distinction between his mind and his eye.
EG: Atget began his career as an actor. He began to photograph at about age 35. In her essay, "The Structure of the Work” Maria discusses our modern perception of the work: "Atget understood art to be skill, the capacity to raise work to the highest standards of excellence. It was not an autonomous, self-justifying activity. One plied one's art in the service of a calling. This notion was essential both to his formation as an actor and to his work in a utilitarian branch of photography.” Maria, would you comment further on this?
MMH: I think I have said what I wanted to say pretty simply. And I mean it simply.
It seems to me that if we assume that Atget is a modern artist the way we would assume that Matisse for example, is a great modern artist - they were of approximately the same period then we take the same standards that we apply to Matisse and we apply them to Atget. We judge Matisse's work from his smallest doodles to his largest most marvelous paintings as products of the pace and intuition and visual education and ideas of this man.
In Atget's case, it doesn't work that way, because the man was a commercial photographer, he was an artisan, a craftsman in an old world sense. Many photographers are misunderstood, which is that you fill a job and perform a service. You are hired. It is similar to an architect: you have to build something that will stand up and be serviceable. And there's the budget and the client. But most of the time in the last ten years that I have been worrying about photography, people come in expecting that everything is going to be of the highest order or that it is going to be art or interesting, but that is not the case. It is just not. In Atget's case, the man worked very hard and supported himself entirely from his craft. There is a warmness that is just plain hard work, record making.
One of the great things about photography is that it is a way of exploring the world. If you take on these projects, whatever they are, whether you have to photograph a stairway or a boat, you learn something about it. If you want to be a star all you are doing is making an empty statement. One of the things that ultimately make up something wonderful with this time spent in hard work, is that when you finally get around to allowing yourself the time to say something, you know something. Atget knew where the values were and what they meant. He had been out there. It is a statement from the heart finally.
EG: I believe this is an attitude we are too far away from. It seems that many understand the activity of the artist right now is in relation to being a star.
I wondered John, if you could comment on the current situation facing the young contemporary photographer.
JS: There isn't any way to advise artists. One might hope different people with different prejudices, backgrounds, and readings of what is valuable would have different kinds of hopes and ambitions for the future of the medium. I hope that, for example, a body of work like this might help young photographers to view the possibilities of the medium, to see the seriousness and to envision in the long range what they might do or what it might be for. I would encourage them to approach the work with a generosity of spirit that we see in the work of Atget or Lee Friedlander for example. One might hope that this example might encourage people to think of photography as something less like juggling, less like acrobatics, and more like study. That doesn't have anything to do with what the pictures arc going to look like. I am not talking about style, technique, or formal prejudices. It is just about a sense of who one is as a photographer, and what kind or human ambitions that might entail. I know that is very vague, but nobody knows what it will look like.
EG: Can you comment on this image Parc de Seaux, in relationship to the question "what have you learned from Atget?” You must have changed your visual acuity after looking for so long. In addition, you speak of Atget as a benchmark for other photographers in Looking at Photographs, (Museum of Modern Art, 1973.) What specifically should we learn from Atget?
JS: I don't know, what do you know so far? It is not like a doctor's prescription, you take a pill and you get better. The reason his work is so wonderful is that you can keep learning new things from it or at least it can remain interesting and vital. I don't understand his pictures. I think Parc de Sceaux is one of the most astonishing photographs ever made. I mean imagine making that photograph. What the hell, what kind of idea did he have in his head that made him decide. "Yes, that's a photograph," or "Yes, that's a subject". You know, or at least think, that he wasn't working like some kind of synthetic cubist, just some thinking of interesting ways to divide the space. It had to do with more than that or something else than that. But what a way to divide the space, what a way to define what a subject is, what a place to put the edges - both in terms of the central physical design of the picture and also in terms of definition of the content of the picture. What a place to stand.
I think he made 66 pictures at Sceaux. This was the last number. They had just decided to turn the garden into some kind of public, municipal park. They came and started sweeping up, cleaning up the place. As dissimilar as they seem in many ways, Atget and Stieglitz knew some of the same things, and had some of the same intuitions. They learned as they photographed. They both look back and back and back to the same motifs, because they knew they weren't the same subject. Stieglitz photographed Georgia O'Keefe every day of her life, but it wasn't the same subject. It is always something new, always something different. Different potentials — what you may call a motif, it’sendless: The dying poplars, the clouds, the view from the window of the Shelton. Both leamed that, practiced it in a rich and sophisticated way, I think that maybe Atget understood it even in a richer, more intuitive way, but that is not important.
I don't mean that meaning is necessarily sequential or it necessarily increases on the basis of an additional photograph. To make this picture marvelous you don't need the rest of the Sceaux pictures, I simply suggest that one understand the almost absolute plasticity of the possible meanings of the visual world.
MMH: Parc de Sceauxis a picture of the park itself. It was taken in June of 1925. It shows a stairway which Atget photographed previously in March of 1925 and there is grass all over it. This is one of the last pictures that Atget took in a series of Sceaux. The reason it is so interesting to me is that I once met a man who was the son of a man who lived in Sceaux. The father bought every postcard and picture of it that he could get. Well, this man met Atget working in the park, so he said "I want every picture you make." So Atget said to himself, "Fine, I have another client, let me finish this series." And he took two notebooks of Sceaux pictures to this man. He bought them and the notebooks are complete. They are the only notebooks of the Sceaux series that I know of. In them the pictures start out at #10 and end at #75. The 10th picture is like this one but with all of the moss and lichens. This is the last picture. It shows the beginning of the clean-up of the park itself, which had been created for Colbert and had been in disrepair. The park passed from many hands and was in desolate shape when the state bought it in 1934. So Atget went in the earliest of the early spring mornings. There was barely enough light to photograph and he photographed the place just in time before it was spruced up and made into a park. I think that is very interesting. What would in fact be the first photograph for most people was for Atget the last. It was the end of the romance, the end of the poetry and the final word.