Eugene Atget wasborn in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857. Only at the age of 40 did he quit a rather unsuccessful career in acting and became a photographer. Little is known of his absolute intentions, though a lack of theorizing and experimentation might suggest that Atget saw little to value in his own workbeyond a commercial products sold to artists.
Atget's technological approach was outdated before he even began. He photographed Paris with a large format, wooden bellows camera with a rapid rectilinear lens. His photography, consequentially, is characterised by a wispy, drawn out sense of light due to long exposures; a fairly wide view that suggested space and ambiance more than surface detail; and an intentionally limited range of scenes.
Atget occupies a unique position in the history of photography, being claimed as the father of two diverging ideologies. One the one hand, he is presented as the forerunner for transparent, no frills, unpretentious photography. His work a recording of traditional French life on the old back streets of Paris before they were bulldozed by modernity. On the other, Atget is seen as the first Modernist photographer. His images of snatched glimpses, tangential perspectives, odd reflections and bizarre details providing the basis for Surrealism.
The truth maybe somewhere in between. Eugene Atget ought to be viewed as a hinge joining the 19th and 20th centuries. His work bridges the gap between photography as a transparent, almost anonymous record of reality and as an artistic construct practiced self-consciously and intentionally. His genius lies in this synthesis.