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Looking at Atget

September 10–November 27, 2005

The French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) produced one of the most influential bodies of photography in the twentieth century. Looking at Atget and its accompanying catalogue contrast some of the compelling accounts of his photography and provide a close look at the museum’s recently acquired group of 350 works by Atget from the estate of the influential art dealer Julien Levy.

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 libraries 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, tradespeople, crowds—for the same clientele.

Through a selection of some 120 works, Looking at Atget will focus on the responses to his work by Levy and the photographer Berenice Abbott, who together first introduced Atget’s work to an American audience after Atget’s death in 1927. Abbott purchased the contents of his workroom in Paris and brought the collection to New York, where she received Levy’s financial backing. Together they promoted the work in a series of exhibitions and publications. Abbott (who took Atget’s work as a model for her own photographic record, begun in 1929, of New York City) presented Atget as a great “styleless“ photographer who recorded the world around him with humility and respect for his subjects. By contrast, Levy was a connoisseur of photography, which put him among a handful of collectors and curators who treated the medium as a serious art form. Levy was also an advocate of surrealism, and he saw in Atget both a proto-surrealist and an artist who illuminated several aspects of photography. Levy’s selection of Atget’s work often reflects the very personal choices of a collector and the self-consciousness of an aspiring surrealist.

The exhibition and the book also survey the variety of Atget’s approaches to his subjects. Among the works are three of Atget’s paper storage albums, still laden with prints, as Atget had ordered them. 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 seen 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. Atget’s photography is heterogeneous; it requires many looks and several modes of looking. Looking at Atget is designed to consider this particular group of Atgets in the ways that they have come to us—organized by Atget, printed by Abbott, or collected by Levy.

Main Building


The exhibition and catalogue were made possible by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.


Peter Barberie, Horace W. Goldsmith Fellow in Photography, Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs; Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center

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