Capturing the City Streets: Documentary Photography from Atget to Abbott

Although captured in two very distinctive contexts, Eugène Atget’s Au Coq Hardi, 18 Quai de la Megisserie and Berenice Abbott’s Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York depict similar subject matter and share a connection that transcends the physical photographs. Both Atget and Abbott were documentary photographers dedicated to capturing photographs of city streets. The connection between these two photographers forms a relationship between the two photographs. Abbott actually gained her inspiration to capture documentary photography from Atget’s work. Because of this connection, there are several similarities both in the intent and technical elements in capturing the two photographs.

To address the similarities, both of these images depict quite similar subject matter. Despite the titles of the photographs revealing their location, they both capture a clear shot of an urban shop or restaurant from a street-view, sometime during the 20th century. Both of these photographs provide insights as to what life was like during the time the image was captured, without overbearing artistic elements. They are first and foremost a form of evidence to either preserve or capture urban living during very impactful periods in history. The simple composition of these images allows the viewer to focus on the detail and insight revealed in the photographs.

Another key similarity is that both of these images were developed using the gelatin silver print process. These prints consist of four layers: a paper base, a white gelatin layer to smooth the surface, a gelatin binder that holds the silver to the photographic image, and a final layer of gelatin for protection.[1] Gelatin silver prints were first being developed as dry plate emulsions in 1874, but were not of very high quality. After coating machines were invented in the mid-1880s, this slowly became a more popular printing process. Companies such as Kodak began to implement this process on a commercial level at the start of the 20th century.[2] The glossy finish, typical of contemporarily photography, did not become popular until the 1920s or 30s.

The introduction of the gelatin silver print process was significant to the history of photography, as it was a much simpler process than say, the wet-plate collodion process popular during the 1850s to 1880s. This offered a whole new realm of possibility to photographers, as they did not need to immediately develop images, but could rather take a package of plates for the day or week and then return to the studio much later to develop the photographs. It was for its simplicity that the gelatin silver print process became the dominate printing process of the 20th century.[3]

However, despite these similarities, these photographs differ substantially in context, as Atget’s photograph was captured in Paris during the glamorous Belle Époque, in contrary to the Great Depression in New York, when Abbott photographed her image. To gain a better understanding of each photograph, one must explore both the personal and societal context of each image. Interestingly, there is some overlap in the personal lives of the two photographers.

Atget was born an orphan in 1857 in Libourne, France. After a brief attempt at pursuing acting, he discovered photography and was commission by the municipality to photograph Old Paris, which he did from 1888 until his death in 1927.[4] Atget was a documentary photographer and captured authentic and detailed photographs of the city streets of Paris during the Belle Époque in France. He was known as a ‘street photographer’ and his work provided a nostalgic and unique vision of what life was like during that time. His inspiration rooted back to several 19th century photographers, including the Bisson brothers who were important city documentary photographers, as well as Baron Haussmann who photographed the “renovation” of Paris in the 1860s.[5] It quickly became Atget’s mission to capture Paris in order to preserve its essence: the architecture, the restaurants, the shops, the citizens, even down to the foliage during various seasons.

The Belle Époque, when Atget was photographing, was a period in European history that spanned from the late 19th century to early 20th century.[6] This period is typically associated with happiness, prosperity, innovation and artistic flourishing. Paris was at the heart of it all, filled with carriages, homely outdoor cafés, and glamorous boulevards where women wore long gloves and fancy hats in the evenings. This was a precious time were something exciting was always something, but was abruptly terminated by World War I in 1914.[7]

Au Coq Hardi, 18 Quai de la Megisserie was captured in 1902 and was part of Atget’s portfolio L’Art dans la Vieux Paris. This photograph, among others in the series, captures Paris ‘in-the-moment’ in the midst of the Belle Époque, when its artistic flare and romantic essence were still intact, prior to the modernization in the city. Atget’s work deliberately attempted to preserve Old Paris, in documenting particular shots of the city that reveal its historically charming nature.[8] He photographed every enchanting nook of the city, down to a pretty door handle, where he obtained thousands of negatives over the years.

This photograph in particular captures a shop in Paris from a street-view angle. With the shop being in the center of the photograph, occupying most of the space, the effect of this choice of composition is to simplify the subject matter, which concentrates the focus on the details of the photograph. The fact that the photograph is taken at a realistic distance from the shop relative to where a person would be standing as they pass by, as well as with the unknown person wandering in the shop, provide the viewer with an authentic viewpoint of a person walking by. The statue above the shop, the plants and grains outside the store, and the shop sign are all captured to preserve the charming ambience of Paris at this time. The colour and finish of the photograph as well as the shadow of the tree cast upon the shop soften the photograph and generate a more delicate daytime image of Paris, while still providing a clear, documentary-style photograph for the L’Art dans la Vieux Paris collection.

Many of the photographs and negatives Atget developed during his photography career were sold once Artget died to a young photographer: Berenice Abbott, who photographed Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York, the second photo analyzed in this essay.[9] Abbott spent the next forty or so years developing and displaying Atget’s photographs to the world and publishing his great work. She was a very skilled photography technician and crafted Arget’s prints using the gelatin silver print process, which she also used to develop Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York. Abbott gained her inspiration to undertake her own form of photographic documentation from Atget.[10]

Born in Ohio in 1898, Abbott grew up in a home of divorce and constant conflict, and rarely discussed her unhappy childhood.[11] She grew into independence at a very young age and learned to be self-reliant. Abbott always believed that she controlled her own fate, and “got hard pretty early”.[12] This attitude carried through to her adult life, where she remained very private and rejected sentiment in her life.[13] Her clear and concise documentary-style photography mimicked these early experiences.

She also persevered as a female documentary photographer in a male-dominated field largely rooted in Pictorialism, grace to her tenacious attitude developed during childhood. She started working in the studio of Man Ray in 1924, and then pursued portrait photography during her time in Paris.[14] She returned to America and settled in New York during the Great Depression, where she began a project called the Changing New York. The aim of this project was to provide a clear image of the metropolis in the quickly growing city of New York from 1935 to 1939.[15] These images captured the city in a very honest, documentary-styled manner, similar to Atget’s work. In fact, Abbott gained her inspiration to undertake photographic documentation from Atget’s photographs of Old Paris.[16]

This photograph in particular captures a restaurant from a street-view angle, again similar to Atget’s photo. It is, however, captured at an angle that more realistically imitates the perspective of a passer-by, as opposed to directly in front of the shop. This conveys an element of spontaneity and sense of realism to the photograph. Furthermore, there is a man coming up the staircase with his hands in his pockets, and another man leaning behind the barber pole. Both subjects in this photograph have a passive composure and aloof expression on their face, which I believe is telling of the almost helpless attitude of people living in the city during the Great Depression. It should be noted that this photograph was captured not as the very beginning of the Great Depression, but rather at a point where this daunting reality had sunk in and panic had turned to despair. For even more insight, the hand-written menu on the window with corresponding prices allows the reader to gain a direct understanding of how much a meal would have costed in a 1930s, New York restaurant, such as a 15 cent pork tenderloin. The image also has a starkness to it from being so clear and black and white, in comparison to Atget’s sepia photograph with wispy shadows to soften it. I believe this effect was representative of the stark, cold streets of New York during the Great Depression, in contrast to the lively, charming streets of Paris during the Belle Époque.

To provide some context, the Great Depression was a longest economic fall in all of Western History, spanning from 1929 to 1939. It was caused by a crash in the stock market in 1929, which caused an uproar on Wall Street and devastated millions of investors.[17] The decline in spending cause a huge drop in industrial output, which cause many people to be unemployed with no income. New York was a different place from before, and the atmosphere remained bleak until the late 1930s when the industry began to recover.

Artget and Abbott’s photographs differ significantly in that they were captured in very different contexts. Atget’s photograph was captured in Paris during the Belle Époque: a period of prosperity, romance, joy and artistic flare. His goal was the capture Old Paris as a form of documentation in order to preserve its character and quality of life. This is contrary to the time in which Artget captured her photograph in New York during the Great Depression. During this time, the city was bleak and feelings of both panic and despair permeated through the city.

However, although Abbott and Atget’s photographs were captured in such different contexts, they both depict wholesome, street-style city images that reveal an authentic sense of what life was like in those cities during those times. Both Abbott and Atget were documentary photographers with a fine attention to detail, and did not wish to implement a significant degree of artistic flare in their work. They both suffered very independent childhoods, which sculpted their photographic style as adults. This explains why both of these images were rich in documentary detail and weak in artistic elements. In an attempt to maintain realism, both photographers decided to compose the image in a way that would mimic the perspective of a person walking by. This is something that I believe Abbott took from Atget’s work in Paris as a street-photographer. Finally, both images contain details such as text, or cultural trimmings that are authentic to the scene and provide clear evidence of respective lifestyles during these periods. To conclude, I believe Atget and Abbott’s photographs share quite a remarkable connection considering many of their fundamental differences including the period and part of the world they depicted. Though exploring these photographs, it is fascinating to learn about the connection that two such different photographs can share with another.

Berenice Abbott- Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York
Eugène Atget, Au Coq Hardi, 18 Quai de la Megisserie, 1902, gelatin silver print, 22 x 18 cm
Eugène Atget- Au Coq Hardi, 18 Quai de la Megisserie
Berenice Abbott, Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York, 1935, gelatin silver print, 24.4 x 19.1 cm

Notes

[1] Gawain Weaver, A Guide to Fiber-Base Gelatin Silver Print Condition and Deterioration (New York: George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film Image Permanence Institute, 2008), 5.
[2] Weaver, 6.
[3] Weaver, 6.
[4] Christopher Rauschenberg et al., Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Paris (New York: Priceton Architectural press, 2007), 10.
[5] Rauschenberg et al., 11.
[6] Philippe Jullian, La Belle Époque (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982), 3.
[7] Jullian, 3.
[8] Rauschenberg et al., 10.
[9] Rauschenberg et al., 10.
[10] Rauschenberg et al., 10.
[11] George Sullivan, Berenice Abbott, Photographer: An Independent Vision (New York: Clarion Books, 2006), 9.
[12] Sullivan, 10.
[13] Sullivan, 10.
[14] Berenice Abbott, New York in the Thirties (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1939), 5.
[15] Abbott, 5.
[16] Abbott, 5.
[17] History.com Staff. “The Great Depression.” History.com. 2009. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/great-depression.

 

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