The French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) produced one of the most influential bodies of photography in the 20th century. Looking at Atget, an exhibition of some 120 images, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from September 10-November 27, 2005, will juxtapose some of the compelling aspects of his photography and provide a close look at the Museum’s recently acquired group of 350 works by Atget, from the collection of the influential art dealer Julien Levy. The Museum acquired the collection in 2001 in part as a gift from Levy’s widow, Jean Farley Levy, and with a major contribution from longtime Philadelphia residents and philanthropists Lynne and Harold Honickman.
Looking at Atget and its accompanying catalogue will focus on the responses to the great French artist’s work by Levy and the photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), who together first introduced Atget’s work to an American audience after his death in 1927. Abbott purchased the contents of Atget’s workroom in Paris—1,300 glass negatives and 7,000 prints assembled in albums— and brought the collection to New York, where she received Levy’s financial backing. Together, they introduced Atget’s work to the American public in a series of exhibitions and publications.
“This wonderful exhibition of Atget photographs, many of which are shown here for the first time, offers an exciting opportunity to consider Atget afresh and also to explore Julien Levy’s impact on photography in the 20th century,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It is appropriate for Atget to be the subject of the first major exhibition to emerge from the many treasures in the Julien Levy photography collection, as Atget was the very first artist exhibited by Levy, in a show at the Weyhe Gallery in 1930, one year before Levy opened his own gallery.”
“Although he was not well known during his lifetime, Atget’s visual record of a vanishing world became an inspiration for many important 20th century photographers, including Man Ray, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott,” said Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs at the Alfred Stieglitz Center, in the Museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. “This significant exhibition and its accompanying publication would not have been possible without the generosity of The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, to whom we extend our thanks for its admirable support of the study of photography.”
Atget turned to photography in the early 1890s after spending a number of years as an actor in Paris and the provinces. He was a commercial photographer who began making studies for artists, but soon expanded his work to cater to a broad range of designers, as well as librarians and antiquarians eager for visual records of art and architecture in Paris and its surroundings. Atget also photographed the varied street life of Paris— shop fronts, tradesmen, crowds— for the same clientele.
Although Abbott and Levy jointly owned a large collection and shared an abiding passion for his legacy, they treated that legacy differently, according to organizing curator Peter Barberie, the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Abbott promoted Atget as a great ‘styleless’ photographer who recorded the world around him with humility and respect for his subjects,” said Barberie. “By contrast, Levy saw in Atget both a proto-Surrealist and an artist who illuminated several aspects of photography. The 120 works in this exhibition represent three distinct views of Atget’s multi-layered photography: that of Atget himself, in albums he assembled for working purposes; that of Abbott, who printed certain works that she felt exemplified Atget’s objective style and purpose; and that of Levy, who collected the photographs with the self-consciousness of an aspiring Surrealist.”
Levy was a connoisseur of photography, which put him among a handful of collectors and curators in the 1920s and ‘30s who treated the medium as a serious art form. His connoisseurship and his Surrealist point of view are evident in certain images from his private collection, such as Atget’s photographs of the sculptures, gardens and palace of Versailles. Atget also photographed many subjects the Surrealists loved, such as the crowded shop window in Les Halles (1925) and the mysterious empty staircase of Hotel de Sully (1904-05).
Abbott found clarity, not the distortions favored by Surrealists, in Atget’s pictures, and she took Atget’s work as a model for her own photographic record of New York City, begun in 1929. The prints she made from Atget’s negatives around 1930 emphasized his objective treatment of subjects, including street trades, interiors, shop displays, ragpickers, and prostitutes, the latter photographed stationed for business outside of doorways.
The exhibition and publication also survey the variety of Atget’s approaches to his subjects. Among the works included are one of Atget’s negatives and three of his paper storage albums. The organization of these albums offers further perspective on Atget’s work—the photographer’s own. Atget sometimes pursued a topic with single-minded purpose, as is the case in his series on Parisian interiors, made in 1910. Other times, the many photographs he made of a particular motif seem to have little relation to one another in terms of style or purpose. His photographs of parks such as Versailles and the Tuileries, made throughout his career, demonstrate his diversity of approaches, which seemed to shift with his subjects and clients.
Looking at Atget and its accompanying publication were made possible by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. The exhibition is organized by Peter Barberie, the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography.
Born in Libourne, France in 1857, Eugène Atget was orphaned in 1861 and raised by an uncle in Bordeaux. He spent his early years working at a variety of professions, from sailor to actor, before turning to photography around age 41. He was known for working early in the morning and traveling through the streets and gardens carrying his large-format view camera. He made a living by selling photographs of the parks, streets, architectural details and people of Paris to architects, painters, stage designers and editors. In all, Atget created about 10,000 photographs of Paris and its surroundings. Substantial holdings of his work can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.
ABOUT THE JULIEN LEVY COLLECTION
In June 2001, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the Julien Levy collection of photographs, a trove of nearly 2,000 images amassed by one of the most influential and colorful proponents of modern art and photography in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. More than 130 artists are represented in the collection, which bears witness to the Julien Levy Gallery’s activities on behalf of photography in New York from 1931 through 1948 and contains major and little known works by American and European photographers active between the World Wars. It includes a superb group of 350 works by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) and prime examples by the American masters Anne Brigman (1868-1950), Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Man Ray (1890-1976), Paul Outerbridge (1896-1959), and Lee Miller (1907-1977) among many others. In the important group of photographs by European practitioners are works by artists closely associated with the advent of Surrealism, among them Max Ernst (1891-1976), Dora Maar (1907-1999), Roger Parry (1905-1977), Maurice Tabard (1897-1984), and Umbo (1902-1980).
In June 2006, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will celebrate the centenary of Julien Levy’s birth with a major exhibition and catalogue surveying the Levy collection.