Eugene Atget: artist?

More than any other course, Gesture & Meaning has me challenging the course notes – this may be an appropriate response in some instances, or it could mean that I’m just not ‘getting it’ right away. Either way, I’m going to articulate an example, maybe to come back to later.

The case in point is the use of Eugene Atget to open the Fine Art Photography section.

Anything can be art

Art is expression. Pretty much anything can become ‘art’, if it is displayed in a particular context. One argument is that the act of calling it art makes it art (e.g. Duchamp’s Fountain). The gallery context makes anything presented by an artist an ‘art object’.

Then you have the work added to the canon of ‘art photography’ after the event, often after the artist’s death (more below).

Fine art

So if anything can be classed as art, with or without the artist’s consent, such a classification can become meaningless. The focus shifts onto what the course notes calls ‘fine art’. I would argue that such ‘fine art’ differentiates itself from the inescapable capacity of any object to be re-contextualised as ‘art’ is that it is intended to be art at the point of creation.

  • A documentary image becomes art – its intent was to inform the public
  • An advertising image becomes art – its intent was to sell a commodity
  • A family snapshot becomes art – its intent was to capture a moment

All this is important in the case of using Atget to introduce art photography as I don’t believe that fine art was his intent.


Atget was a documentarian. His aim for the Paris work was to capture the city in a methodical, encyclopaedic manner. One can argue that his style would later be described as ‘Modernist’ but the jury is out as to what extent this was a conscious artistic choice. Andy Grundberg discussed this dichotomy: “[We] have a choice between looking on Atget as an exemplary documentary photographer and seeing him as a formally innovative artistic genius.” (Grundberg 1985).

Patronage is also a consideration, i.e for whom was Atget taking these pictures. The answer seems to be for future historians – he was capturing ‘Old Paris’ before it disappeared. He didn’t take paid commissions, but neither did he try to sell his images as artworks. He did sell images, to architects and libraries.

The course notes uses the phrase: “It’s not difficult to imagine these works as paintings.” (G&M course notes: 55) but this is a statement of resemblance not of intent.

His vision was not one of evoking emotions, transmitting ideas or enhancing the consciousness of his audience (as discussed in my previous post). His intent wasn’t to express something. He was recording the city for the future. He wasn’t intentionally an artist, he became one retrospectively.

Stephen Bull explicitly addresses this concept of retrospective artistic canonisation using Atget as his example:

“The best-known example of this retrospective canonisation is Eugene Atget, who recorded Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century in utilitarian photographs made for the use of architects, artists and historians. Atget did not see himself as an artist, but just before he died his photographs were used by Man Ray in a Surrealist magazine and after his death his work was bought and promoted by Berenice Abbott and sold to MoMA.” (Bull 2010: 131)

Window, Corset Shop, 1912 – Eugene Atget

The course notes offer the above as evidence of Atget’s surrealist tendencies – I say take enough photographs and some of them will have surrealist elements, intentionally or not.

What I’ve learned

The point of these musings wasn’t to disparage Atget. It was to help me understand the difference between intentional art and retrospectively categorised art. It’s a distinction that I will keep in mind!


Eugene Atget: His Art Bridged Two Centuries (accessed 08/03/2016)

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.


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