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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