The Paris That Awoke to Atget’s Lens

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala, via Art Resource, NY; Ed Alcock for The New York Times

Atget returned again and again, especially in his later years, to the Parc de St.-Cloud, seen in an image from March 1926 and recently.


EUGÈNE ATGET was a stooped-over 69-year-old carrying a heavy load of camera equipment across Paris by the time he shot some of his greatest photographs: misty visions of Paris and its great parks in the dawn light, muted by clouds and filled with trees.

And perhaps no one has captured that empty, pristine and ageless city so beautifully and comprehensively as Atget.

Berenice Abbott, a contemporary, called him the “Balzac of the camera,” and even today, 83 years after his death, his work serves as the definitive record of those mysterious, just-waking moments when the sun begins to rise and the streets are mostly empty. While during daylight hours Paris is a city that must be shared, at dawn it belongs to a lucky few. And in a city that maintains a strong reverence for its past, many of the settings Atget so loved still exist, untouched. An early-morning tour — beginning, say, at 6 a.m. — allows anyone to inhabit them.

Start in the Fourth and Fifth Arrondissements, where he did some of his best work, capturing the Quai d’Anjou — the street that hugs the Seine — in dawn mist and the grand homes along the river.

Go out on foot to Île St.-Louis and stand on the quai and you will see the same metal-and-glass streetlamp, the same plane trees spreading their filigreed branches across the sky, that Atget photographed decades ago.

Some of Atget’s loveliest photographs capture the grand homes that line the Seine, whether as the focus of a picture or as part of a broader setting in which they vie for attention with the trees and water.

At the foot of Île St.-Louis is the Hôtel Lambert with its big wooden doors and door knockers. Finished in 1644, it has been home to a number of wealthy Parisians, from the Rothschilds to the current owner: a Qatari prince who reportedly paid around $100 million three years ago to acquire it.

The Hôtel Lambert so dominates the Rue St.-Louis-en-l’Île that there is little room for other homes in Atget’s photographs of it, which lend the opulent property a majestic grandeur.

Around the corner along the quai at No. 17 is the Hôtel de Lauzun, finished in 1657 by the architect Louis Le Vau, which also seemed to captivate Atget. The imposing building was lived in by titled families, wealthy commoners and even Baudelaire, who, it is said, wrote the first few poems of “Les Fleurs du Mal” while in residence. The exteriors, which Atget photographed on several occasions, feature rainwater downspouts with extravagant flutes that are decorated with collars of gold.

From the quai, take a short walk across the Pont Marie to the Marais, where you will find the Hôtel de Sens, one of two medieval private homes in Paris, which Atget recorded several times in his career. In his depiction, the hulking castle-like building sits uncomfortably amid far smaller buildings, its walls dwarfing them in importance. Today it is an art library, and its form is still an anomaly, but one of a different sort, as taller, more mundane buildings encroach.

A failed actor, Atget began photographing in the mid-1890s when he was already over 40 and after much of Paris had been radically reshaped by a civic planning effort promoted by Baron Haussmann. Working with a simple box camera and glass plates, Atget took public transportation to get from arrondissement to arrondissement. Using only a dozen or so plates in the course of a day’s shooting, his objective was to document old Paris at a time when its buildings were being systematically destroyed.

To take advantage of the light and the empty streets, Atget often worked in the early morning. But the still, timeless quality of his images was also enhanced by his camera; its long exposures meant that any people in the background were captured as little more than blurs. The result was over 10,000 images, often devoid (or seemingly devoid) of people, showcasing the city’s streets, buildings, their decorative architectural details, storefronts and parks.

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