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Matinee: 'Eugène & Berenice' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

25 July 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the ninety-fifth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Eugène & Berenice: Pioneers of Urban Photography.

Eugène Atget shot over 10,000 images of Paris in a modern, documentary style. But if it weren't for the American photographer Berenice Abbott, we might never have known the extent of his work. And, of course, we would never have had her images of New York, inspired by his approach to Paris.

This 52-minute film looks at Atget's Paris of and Abbott's New York, showing many of their photographs spliced with rare archival interview footage of Abbott and commentary from a fe modern photographers as well.

The film begins with Atget's story, including his early life portraying villains on the stage and as the editor of a satirical magazine. He left all that behind to settle in Paris in 1888.

He had planned to become a painter but he noticed that thousands of Parisian painters often worked from photographs and needed photographers to supply them. So he opened a photography studio in 1890 to provide documentary photographs to painters.

Matisse and Picasso were among his clients.

He always described his photography as documentation, refusing to confuse himself with an artist. He didn't pose Paris, he captured it. For 40 years.

It was an interesting 40 years in Paris, during which the city was demolished and rebuilt. And he found clients for his image easily.

Both the building trades and designers were hungry for templates of the disappearing Paris whose elaborate brass and plaster detail Atget documented in his photographs. Government agencies also became interested in his documentation of the Paris that had not changed since before the Revolution.

Paris had been full of hope but New York was dynamic.

But he didn't just shoot building and their interiors.

His photos of street pedlars were 60 second exposures requiring the subjects to pose. That was no trouble for the former actor to arrange. And some of his most famous pictures were of a few of the 20,000 prostitutes of Paris, which he had been requested to photograph in a series by a client who was an artist.

Man Ray appreciated Atget's images as art rather than mere documentation. It was the perspective of a modernist. He published some of Atget's images in a magazine he edited, but at Atget's insistence, without attribution. It nevertheless marked the beginning of Atget's fame as an artist.

Berenice Abbott was Man Ray's darkroom assistant in Paris at the time.

At Ray's suggestion, she herself became a photographer after working for him three years. Before she left to open her own studio, Ray showed her his Atget photographs.

Like Atget, she had worked in the theater in her youth. And his carefully composed images would inspire a new direction in her own work as she became a lifelong admirer of both Atget and his photographs.

She introduced herself to Atget and they became friends. His modesty and high standards impressed her. She photographed him after the loss of his wife and his long-time companion. But when she took the prints to him, he had already died himself. He never saw them.

She bought his archive of 1,800 glass negatives and 8,000 prints, promising "to do right by him" and immediately cleaned the negatives, making a good start on her promise.

She promoted his work and exhibited it throughout Europe. It would be a lifelong calling.

In 1929 when she returned to New York City to find a publisher for his images, she became "smitten with New York," she recalls. Paris had been full of hope but New York was dynamic. And she could photograph New York as Atget had photographed Paris.

Her friends thought she was crazy to leave a growing business in Paris for the Depression in New York. And she struggled in the dynamic city. She couldn't get funding for her 1,000-image portrait of New York until she shot Night View, her famous nighttime shot of the city glimmering beneath the Empire State Building.

Like Atget, she documented the city's buildings, old and new, and its street life, rich and poor. But her work was her own.

For Abbott, composition was paramount. Where you put your camera, she insisted, was the art of photography. You could put it in a thousand places, she pointed out. But it has to be visually exciting. It has to be photographically important.

"Otherwise you write about it," she said.

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