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11.4.14

31 A Parisian Affair


Did you ever play the game of counting plum stones and cherry pits to discover your future? Who will I be? Who will my husband be? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief ... ? The options were so limited my sister and I rewrote the rhyme to suit our aspirations*. I wanted to be an author, and later, an artist. She, a stunt woman. I managed both, in my own small way. She became an insurance broker. Such is life!

knitsofacto, in it's beginnings, was as much about the wordy stuff as it was about the stuff I was making, but I seem to have lost sight of that lately. So I thought I'd share with you in full my latest I.T Post offering.

In the overall scheme of things, to have, as I've mentioned before, a column in a Hong Kong fashion magazine, is hardly the hugest deal. But when the FedEx van that's couriering my copy to me arrives I'm as excited as I was the very first time I saw my name in print. Each issue of I.T Post is very loosely themed, and Spring/Summer 2014 tackles love and passion. I wrote about a Parisian affair, of sorts ...

To "possess the whole of old Paris" ... if that wasn't photographer Eugène Atget's initial aim it was, he once suggested, his definitive achievement. But was he simply a flâneur - a detached chronicler of a changing city - or was he pursuing an even more intimate understanding of the streets of Vieux Paris.

Atget's Paris is essentially a stage that the players are yet to arrive upon, or perhaps a stage they've already left. This shouldn't surprise us; his principle income came from the sale of his images to set designers, interior decorators, and architects, who used them for visual reference. His cityscapes slope upwards into the distance, their foci of attention - a tree, or a doorway perhaps - set to the left or the right, enhancing their value as backdrops for actors front and centre, should the actors show up. Not that Atget's camera would have caught them if they had, unless they'd stood stock still and stayed that way for the duration of a lengthy exposure time.

Instead, even the photographer absents himself, hiding so adroitly that we easily forget that he is there. And in forgetting we accept the rolling back of time that Atget's empty streets imply. His erasure of modernity - motor buses, electric street lighting, the Eiffel Tower - deftly achieved by placing his archaic bellows camera in carefully chosen spots, often at carefully chosen times of day, quite passes us by. Using a medium inextricably of the here and now Atget shows us the past. And, just as easily, he conjures the near future. A café in the Avenue de la Grande–Armée, empty at first light, or a deserted carousel at the fête de la Villette ... such images invite conjecture. Who will come? What will follow?

Another Parisian café, Le Dôme, on the Boulevard de Montparnasse, also appears empty at first glance, but look again and you will see a handful of behatted early morning patrons sitting sheltering from a passing shower, and contemplating art perhaps, or love. And in a café on the corner of the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève the ghostly trace of someone who moved during Atget's long exposure is visible within. These 'accidental' details are commonplace in Atget's oeuvre, if sometimes hard to spot. Often they bring opposing ideas into play - here the static and the fluid - a device he frequently employed.

Atget's images of shop window displays - corsets in every size imaginable, gents toupees and ladies wigs, medical trusses, clown suits, and even what appears to be a human skeleton - collectively constitute an urban theatre of the absurd that also plays with oppositions. And meanwhile, fashionably clad department store mannequins sit carefully posed in chambers of illusion, their context, the city itself, captured by Atget as reflections in the window glass. Reflections that seem to animate the mannequins and place them in the street, and in so doing confuse the eye ... what is inside and what out?

Patterns on glass often feature in Atget's later photographs of Parisian shops. Where in the past he had been preoccupied with the almost archaeological endeavour of inventorying decaying architectural details before they were lost, increasingly traces left on the city by light and movement seemed to attract him as much as the marks of age. In Magasin du Bon Marché (c. 1925) the female mannequins, modelling the new season's coats and hats, are partially obscured by multiple layers of evidence of city life. The street reflected in the windows of the store may at first seem empty, but look again and the blurs that are passersby become visible, as do the reflections of the buildings across the street and around the corner, and of details close to hand, including text.

The elusive Atget can occasionally be seen reflected in glass himself. Catering for an antiquarian interest in old Parisian shop signs Atget's standard approach to chronicling them was to place his camera centrally to the door that the sign hung above, and just across the street from it. Those within the shop often appear in these photographs too, peering out at him through the glass in the door that he himself is reflected in. But where they turn blurred white faces to the camera his is largely hidden by a black photographer's cloth. This straight on approach was not Atget's norm however, that was to carefully chose his spot and shoot from a slight angle and at eye level. It's generally the view of the Parisian pedestrian, even the flâneur, that Atget offers us.

Not much is known about Atget's beginnings. He had been a merchant seaman, subsequently became a not entirely successful actor, and then, in his mid thirties, turned his hand to photography. In his own lifetime he remained largely unnoticed. Posthumously, however, he has been variously considered an exemplar of Vieux Paris photography - dedicated to creating a photographic record of the city's architectural heritage - and "the father of modern photography", words inscribed on a plaque set up in Montparnesse to honour him. In 1969 John Szarkowski wrote of him : Atget was "... a photographer: part hunter, part historian, part artisan, magpie, teacher, taxonomist and poet. The body of work he produced in his thirty working years provides perhaps the best example of what a photographer might me." And finally, from Atget, "[the work] ... was undertaken rather for love of old Paris than for profit."


* What did you want to be when you grew up? And who did you want to marry?



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31 comments :

  1. Hello Annie,

    This is a most erudite and intriguing account of this photographer who, until now, was not known to me. His pictures beguile one into looking more deeply as one notices first the obvious and then, on closer inspection, the more subtle elements of the image. They do possess a sort of ghost like quality which is so appropriate for capturing a time, place or way of life which is about to disappear.

    Given the limited capacity of cameras of the day, the images produced by Atget and, a little later by Lartigue, are quite simply amazing. The patience needed to secure a particular composition and then the work of producing the final image were exceedingly time consuming. Such a different, digital world we live in today. But, perhaps, that is Atget's legacy to photographic history?

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    1. Lartigue is responsible for some of my favourite images, and likewise Cartier-Bresson. Photographers were once chemists, craftsmen and artists!

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  2. I think that's really sad, when someone's talents aren't recognised in their own lifetime, yet they get great acclaim once they're no longer with us. I wanted to be a mummy when I grew up, so I achieved that, but I didn't get to marry who I wanted to marry, Duran Duran, any of them would have done.

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  3. Hah - I was looking at a book of Atget's photos only this morning!

    When I was growing up you could still recognise great chunks of his streets. Even some of the shops were the same (Etablissments Dr. Arnoux, near us, was a wierd natural history and medical supplies shop catering to the nearby Ecole de Medicine) fascinated me deeply for years. It's now an interior design shop or it was last time I was there. Sigh. Do you also know Marville's work? Equally evocative, and a lot pre-Haussmann, (too much is described as 'disparu') but less well known over here perhaps…

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    1. I do know Marville's work, although I know little about him. I must remedy that :)

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  4. You write beautifully Annie. What a fascinating article.

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  5. A beautifully written piece and so interesting. I wanted to be an air hostess and marry John Lennon.

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  6. Very interesting Annie. I wanted to be able to type without looking at what I was doing and carry on a conversation at the same time - like my Mum - I can indeed do that and am sort of doing it right now! So I guess that I got to be what I wanted, but it isn't very inspiring is it!! xx

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  7. Marry? Why nobody, of course. I was going to be variously, and depending on when you asked, an air hostess, journalist, or a nun. ( Actually, I did have a crush on the young Cliff though).

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  8. A fascinating read. You're an excellent writer. I wanted to be a teacher, and I became one. I hated it. I should have dreamed of something else. :)

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  9. Hey Annie,

    Fascinating article!

    I wanted to be an author when I grew up. My Headmistress thought I would be more suited to a policewoman....

    Oh and I really wanted to marry David Sylvian from the group Japan. Beautiful boy.

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  10. This is beautifully written Annie. Your text makes me want to find out more about this photographer. I wanted to be a translator, farmer or a surgeon when I was little. Yes, no common theme there. I can't remember if and whom I wanted to marry. Have a lovely weekend. xx

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  11. I must let my daughter see these photos, she loves all things Parisian.
    I wanted to be all sorts when I was growing up, nurse, teacher but I ended up in a bank, thankfully though pregnancy got me out of there and I became what I think I really wanted to be, a mother.
    I also wanted to marry Donny Osmond but I married a civil servant instead, that turned out ok though ! ;)
    V x

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  12. I love the ghost effect in that last photo. And the railing in front of the window. The article was very interesting, I so enjoy reading that sort of thing. I have a feeling I may have heard of him before, but only in a vague name-remembrance sort of way.

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  13. Love that bottom photo - stunning. I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Still don't really!
    As for marriage, I wanted to marry George Michael. Just as well that never happened as I don't think it would've ended well for us.

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  14. I like photographs that capture real life. I used to want to be a receptionist, museum docent, veterinarian, or a writer. As for marrying, I can't remember if I ever had that aspiration.

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  15. Annie, what a wonderful article, so beautifully written and about one of my favourite topics, photography. When I was little I wanted to be a stunt woman too! And a vet and about a dozen other things! Now I'm al grown up I'd like to write. And I wanted to marry John Craven, who presented Newsround. I still see him on Countryfile occasionally, and I think we would have been happy together...

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  16. I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. That didn't happen but I did eventually become a swimming teacher and taught for quite a few years. In my earlier years I could easily have married, Marc Bolan or George Best. If I was choosing now, it would have to be Colin Firth without doubt. (Don't tell my husband though!)
    Really enjoyed the article.

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  17. Annie, I had to read your article a few times to catch all the glimpses and nuances of beautiful and carefully chosen words - words that created an atmosphere - for me as reader - around this specific theme. (But then, sigh...English is not my home language - and i might be mistaken...)

    ....to be a teacher, to be a farmer's wife.....i am a teacher, and i married a scientist....who would love to sit on the porch of a farm house, looking at his patches of land and wind mill - as long as i do the work..;-)

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  18. I loved your article about Eugène Atget and I enjoyed looking at his other images that can be seen on the internet. It is a wonderful record of the Paris in his life time.
    We always used to play tinker, tailor, solider, sailor with cherry stones or flower petals and hoped it would never end up on thief! Sarah x

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  19. Hi Annie,

    We had an exhibit of Atget's work in our Rotterdam photo museum not a long ago. It was really good! I enjoyed his photo's of shop fronts, streets and everyday life in Paris. Such fun reading your post about him :-)

    Happy weekend!

    Madelief x

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  20. I love that you ended up doing what you wanted to! I wanted to be so many things when I was young. Some I've achieved, some well, hopefully one day. x

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  21. A wonderful post Annie thank you. My daughter bought us a beautiful card for our anniversary, it's "Lovers with leeks", Paris, 1950, by Robert DOISNEAU (1912-1994). Wonderful photography and I thought you may be familiar with this particular one?
    Growing up I wanted to be a nun; a nurse; a carer of children; and I guess in the finish I combined the lot - although never quite a nun!!!
    Happy Sunday to you and yours, Joy x

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    1. I do know it Joy, yes. Perhaps you would be interested in http://www.robert-doisneau.com/fr/ ... the site features a different Doisneau image daily :)

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  22. Of course it's a big deal to see your name in print Annie! I think Paris is a great city for observation, I love the cafe picture, the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by. I still play the cherry pip game, although as you say, the selections are depressingly limited. I also had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, a vet for a while, an archeologist briefly I think... still working on figuring it out really.

    S x

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  23. You are a wonderful writer Annie and reading your account makes me want to hop on a plane and be transported back to old Paris....As for what I wanted to be growing up, there were so many things - Vet, Marine Biologist, Actress, Interpreter...Law was something I fell into in my final year of School and it appears I'm up for another career change :-) Mel x

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  24. Beautifuly written post Annie. I wanted to be either a farmer, a nurse or a teacher. I'm a teacher :)
    As for the husband, I'm still looking for it ;)

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  25. I wanted to be a novelist.. wanted to be one up till a few years ago..

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  26. That is a beautifully-written and very thought-provoking article, Annie. It doesn't just inform but stimulates us to look at the world a little differently, just as Atget himself did.

    As a child I passionately wanted to be a doctor, but was told my severe asthma and eczema would prevent this. Not being interested in science per se, I switched to languages for A-Levels and never regretted it, though I've never used them in my work.

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  27. You write so well Annie, SO well, it almost makes me give up all hope. My sisters and I used to play that game, and the other one with the petals - he loves me, he loves me not...even less options in that game! I never really knew what I wanted to be and still don't. I know that I'm happy though. x

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  28. I love Atget - what a nice bit of writing. Thanks. I never wanted to get married, swore I wouldn't. (I finally did, at 35.) I wanted to be a writer or a librarian. Now I am neither, but a happy end user of both vocations.

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