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Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson opens an exhibition of works by Eugène Atget
Coin de la place Saint-André-des-Arts et de la rue Hautefeuille, VIe, 1912 © Paris Musées / musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris.

PARIS.- Approximately two generations separate these two photographers. Eugène Atget gave up a career as an actor, Henri Cartier-Bresson that of a painter, in order to pursue a relatively new art: photographic recording. In an un precedented double exhibition and a new approach, Fondation HCB (June 3 to August 19, 2021) and musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris (June 15 to October 31, 2021), bring their collections together to reveal the essence of Paris in the work of these two great figures of French photography.

Fascinated by Atget’s approach, Cartier-Bresson would imitate him until the moment he discovered the Leica camera and started to practice street photography. “To run away” he’d say, after capturing the photo. That was his preferred position. As for Atget, at dawn with a heavy load on his back, recording was very deliberate; little is left to chance, but a pleasure of vision can be seen over time.

From the most classical architecture to the most remote courtyards, Atget, more interested in the city, obsessively depicted a Paris marked by history, offering his prints to painters and libraries. Characters that show up in the frame blend into the background. Cartier-Bresson, having frequented the Surrealists in the 1920s, proved to be a long-haul traveler with Paris as his home base. More than the city, it was humans that interested him. He captured them on the streets or during encounters. He always carries his camera with him. Taking a photograph was taking a breath, it was affirmation, sometimes protest, and a stroll at times guided by a reportage that was asked of him.

Atget said little to nothing about his own work. Reported statements served to define his project as essentially documentary, but it was his direct, poetic approach that fascinated many of his contemporaries. This produced contradictory commentary on his unusual œuvre. With a rich collection of his work held at the musée Carnavalet, Cartier-Bresson made many statements about his own work, much of it in opposition to what one wanted it to be saying. What results is another type of complexity, attested to through the study of the archives conserved at his foundation.

The two photographers were also avid readers. Both figures were fundamentally independent, a bit austere, and fostered neither intellectual concepts nor artistic principles as foundations from which to value experience. They invite us to exercise our gaze, to consider the complexity of the world as the source of our faculty of imagination. Fate would have it that these two bodies of work, emancipatory for photography, first find acknowledgement in the United States before achieving a vast posterity. The two curators conceived this original selection to reflect the poetic dimensions of the two artists.

For the re-opening of museums and particularly of the musée Carnavalet after four years of closure for renovation, these exhibitions celebrate Paris through singular perspectives prior to its status as one of the world’s-most-photographed city.


This exhibition, presented at the Fondation HCB, is the fruit of long research efforts jointly undertaken by the two institutions throughout the musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris' collections. The result is an outstanding presentation of the œuvre of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), a unique figure and photography pioneer. Above all an artisan, Atget’s prolific output of photographs was intended for artists and lovers of the old Paris; he rose to fame posthumously. A forerunner of modernity is seen in his work by art critics and photographers, among them Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose early work sought to imitate Atget. Paris’ place within the œuvre of Cartier-Bresson is also the subject of an exhibition at the musée Carnavalet from June 15 to October 31, a project in partnership with the Fondation HCB.

First acknowledged in the United States and by the French surrealist scene before finding acclaim with succeeding generations of photographers, Atget still exerts unprecedented influence in the 21st century, though reception of his work remains mixed. Bearing a view camera and glass plates, he often captured his subject at dawn. For almost thirty years, he sought to make a collection of the Paris of his time. He also explored city limits, what is known as “the zone”. Today, his images of nearly-deserted streets, store fronts, and courtyards evidence urban change at the turn of the 20th century.

Beyond its documentary aspects, Atget’s photography expresses a deep aesthetic sensibility, illustrating the incalculable contribution he made to the medium. As Paris changed, Atget’s work method evolved accordingly, becoming more and more sensitive to the light and to atmospheric effects. This devotion to detail (using a modest subject matter), in contrast to the triumphant pictorialism of the time, is also singularly modern, allowing a notion of pleasure to surface—one which is rarely mentioned in reference to Atget. The exhibition and its accompanying publication propose sharing this pleasure.

The exhibition is organized by the musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris, Paris-Musées and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris houses a collection of over 9,000 prints by Atget, the largest archive on the photographer. The exhibition Eugène Atget – Voir Paris presents a selection of around 150 of the artist’s original prints.

Eugène Atget was born in Libourne, France in 1857. He gave up a career as an actor and took up photography starting in 1888. He was self-taught. In 1890, he began producing material for use by artists: shots of plants, landscapes and diverse objects. In 1897, he started to take photographs of the Paris of his time systematically, attentive to scenes of urban life, architectural detail and the capital’s topography. Towards the end of his life, he met Man Ray’s assistant, Berenice Abbott, who took two portraits of him. He died in Paris in 1927. Abbott learned of his death just as she was planning to offer him the portraits. Along with gallerist Julien Levy and Atget’s executor, André Calmettes, Abbott aided in rescuing Atget’s studio archive, the recognition of his work through various publications, and the admission of the Abbott/Levy collection to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection in 1968.

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