Eugène Atget was a French flaneur and a pioneer of documentary photography, noted for his determination to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization. Most of his photographs were first published by Berenice Abbott after his death. An inspiration for the surrealists and other artists, his genius was only recognized by a handful of young artists in the last two years of his life, and he did not live to see the wide acclaim his work would eventually receive.
Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget was born in Libourne. After the death of both of his parents, he was brought up by his maternal grandparents. He moved to Paris in 1878. He attended drama school. He became an actor with a travelling group, performing in the Paris suburbs and the provinces. He met actress Valentine Delafosse Compagnon, who became his companion until her death. He gave up acting because of an infection of his vocal cords in 1887, moved to the province and took up painting without success. His first photographs, of Amiens and Beauvais, date from 1888.
In 1890 Atget moved back to Paris and became a professional photographer, supplying documents for artists: studies for painters, architects and stage-designers. Atget took up photography around the time that photography was experiencing unprecedented expansion in both commercial and amateur fields. He sold photos of landscapes, flowers, and other pleasantries to other artists. It wasn’t until 1897 that Atget started a project he would continue for the rest of his life—his Old Paris collection.
Between 1897 and 1927 Atget captured the old Paris in his pictures. His photographs show the city in its various facets: narrow lanes and courtyards in the historic city center with its old buildings, of which some were soon to be demolished, magnificent palaces from before World War II, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. He photographed stairwells and architectural details on the façades and took pictures of the interiors of apartments.
Atget created a tremendous photographic record of the look and feel of nineteenth-century Paris just as it was being dramatically transformed by modernization, and its buildings were being systematically demolished. In addition to architecture and the urban environment, he also photographed street-hawkers, small tradesmen, rag collectors and prostitutes, as well as fairs and popular amusements in the various districts.
During World War I Eugène Atget temporarily stored his archives in his basement for safekeeping and almost completely gave up photography. In 1920–21, he sold thousands of his negatives to institutions.
Berenice Abbott visited Atget in 1925, bought some of his photographs, and tried to interest other artists in his work. In 1926, Valentine died, and Man Ray published several of Atget's photographs in la Révolution surréaliste. Abbott took Atget's portrait in 1927. On the 4th of August he died in Paris