Martin Chambi (1891-1973) and the pride of indigenous blood

Martin Chambi – Selfportrait,Cuzco 1923

I have read that in Chili people think that Indianshave noculture, that they are not civilized, that they are intellectuallyand artistically inferior to whites and Europeans. More eloquent is
my opinion, at least the graphic testimony. My hope is for a more
impartial and objective examination reveals this evidence. I think I
am representative of my race; my people speak up through my
Martin Chambi, 1936.

This quote is representative of Chambi’s work which started in
the 1910’s and ended in the 1970’s. If we are interested in his
work it is because Chambi is one of the first photographer of
indigenous blood from Latin America to shot portraits of his people,
proud and deserving. The documentary and historical value of this
Peruvian artist is undeniable.

Martin Chambi, Indian from Paruro, Cuzco Studio, 1933.

Martin Chambi was born in 1891 in Puno department in Peru. He grew
up in a poor indigenous Quechua peasant family. After his father’s
death, while he was only 14 years old, he had to work for the Santo
Domingo Mining Company,
a gold mine in Carabaya in South Est
Peru. This experience will change his life as he met English
photographers working for the same company whom will start his
passion for photography.

While at the time photography was a technical work, Martin
Chambi transformed it in an artistic creation. In 1908, he leaves for
Arequipa, the white city with eternal blue sky, where photography is
a growing medium and where many renowned photographers are. He
started to work for the “Studio Vargas” owned by the famous Max
T. Vargas, where families from the middle class and higher class went
to have their picture taken. Thanks to him Chambi will be able to
expose his work for the first time in 1917.

Martin Chambi, nude, Cuzco, 1936

Martin Chambi,  Don Julio Gadea’s wedding, Prefect of
Cuzco, 1930

The historical context in which Martin Chambi lives is favorable
to the development of his passion and will encourage him to go to
Cuzco, the of Inca’s capital city, in the 1920’s. Then and there
his career as an artist will bloom. He starts taking portraits of
people from Cuzco’s middle class. Moreover he develops his talent
exploring and taking pictures of this area packed with history and
social crises.

Martin Chambi, Panoramic view, Machu Picchu, Péru – 1925

Peru is then becoming an historical landmark in Latin America.
Thus, it is only in 1911 that the Machu Picchu Citadel, today one of
the most photographed places on earth, is officially discovered by
Hiram Bingham. A few years later, Chambi will contribute to the
growth of the popularization of the incredible place.

Víctor Mendivíl with the giant of Paruro – 1929.Martin Chambi

Through more than 30 000 pictures Martin Chambi reveals the
most well kept secrets of the Andes and its inhabitants.
Photographer, documentarist, artist and realist, Martin Chambi
reveals through each of his portraits the soul of his people and also
emphasizes the singularity of each person, landscape and situation he

Martin Chambi, Sunrise at Plaza de Armas, Cuzco, 1925

Martin Chambi, Ezequiel Arce and his potato harvest. Cuzco.

Chambi takes photos in his studio, in the street of Cuzco and in
the mountains of his area. He documents his people and his region
history while showing his artistic sensitivity. His work allowed to
develop art photography in his country and shined throughout the

Martin Chambi, organist in the chapel of Tinta, 1941

Chambi’s photographs send us back to the reality of inequality
between social classes, to the day to day life of the Peruvian people
and to the submission and the discrimination indigenous people have
to endure. It also gives them back there dignity and there elegance.

Martin Chambi, a begging child, Cuzco, 1934

Martin Chambi, Chicha and Sapo, traditions of Cuzco, 1931

While Chambi was still alive, his pictures were part of
expositions in Peru, Bolivia and Chili. He was also a photojournalist
for the newspaper La Crônica and the magazines Variedades
and Mundial. He took a job at an Argentinian newspaper
from 1918 to 1930 and had his pictures published in the most famous
National Geographic in 1938.  In 1979 his pictures will
be put up on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

While he was still alive Martin Chambi worked hard to make his
work famous. Unfortunately, it took many years and the hard work of
Chambi’s daughter, Julia and his grand-son Teo Allain, for the work
of Martin Chambi to be recognized by his fellow citizen of Peru.

Martin Chambi



August Sander (1876-1964), splendid portraitist of the German society

August Sander Image courtesy of Weinstein Gallery

1.           Agenius self-taught photographer

August Sander was born in Koln in 1876. He grew up in a miningcity, his father working for this industry. He himself worked as a
miner in his youth. He discovered photography during military
service in Trier where he was an assistant photographer. Later on he
will study art for a short period of time in Dresd and will travel
throughout Germany. In 1902 he opened a studio in Linz (Austria)
before coming back to the city where he was born in 1910. During the
1920’s he enriched his artistic approach of photography rubbing
shoulders with painters from the Koln’s progressist movement such
as Raoul Haussmann and Otto Dix. 

August Sander. III/17/9. Painter (Marta Hegemann), c. 1925.
Gelatin Silver Print, printed later by Gerd Sander © Photographische
Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Köln / courtesy by FEROZ Galerie, Bonn

Genious portraitist, August Sander realized splendid documentary
photographs. He gained his daily bread through commercial and
architectural photography. Endowed with a social fiber which echoed
through all his work, August Sander is, without a doubt, one of the
greatest German Photographers.

Bricklayer, 1928 , August Sander

It would be an euphemism to describe August Sander as a prolix
photographer. Indeed, throughout his career he shot more than 40 000
large format pictures. The largeness of his work shows his will to
document the society in which he lived as objectively as possible.

However he had to stop his work a first time because of the First
World War, and will have to do so again after the rise of the Nazis. 

Young farmers, 1914, August Sander

Between the two Wars, he documented the German society and the
rise of Nazism. His work will fall victim to the National Socialist
Party’s autodafé. The Nazis will also destroy the impression
blocks of his work kept by his editor.

Soldier, 1940 , August Sander

2.       Social photographs
used to start fires

Faces of our time (Antlitz der Zeit) and the XXth
century Men
(Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts) are two of the
greatest works published under August Sander’s name and shall be
considered as funding pillars of social photography.

Rural Bride, 1925-1930, August Sander

As soon as 1911 he started working on the before mentioned master
pieces. He divided the German society in 7 groups untitled:
“peasants”, “craftsmen”, “women”, “socio-professional
groups”, “artists”, “big cities”, “the last Men” (the
elder, sick and dead). He started this work with 600 portraits.
Inspired by psycho-morphology and physiognomony, he tried to
represent with as much objectivity as possible and great realism a
portrait of his Time. In order to take his pictures, he asked his
models to pause in the fashion that seemed the most natural to them.
The results are representations without artificial effects, frontal
and leading to the disappearance of the photographer in front of his
model. This technic inspired other great photographers as Walker
Evans and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Teacher, 1921, August Sander

The artistic part of his work can be found in the way he shoots
portraits and in the way he classified his work, creating a great
mosaic putting together in the same album different members of his

The Philosopher Max Scheler, 1925, August Sander

Smiths, 1926, August Sander

People from the Circus, 1926-1932 , August Sander

Otto Dix and his wife Martha, 1926, August Sander

If some people consider Sander’s work as part of the Neue
Sachlichkeit movement (New objectivism), this analyses has been
criticize by art historians. His work falls clearly under the newly
born documentary style as his portraits reflect the “language of
reality” mentioned by Olivier Lugon. This work will be subject to
the Nazi’s hatred that will burn his books and imprisoned his child
whom will die in jail in 1944 for his political ideas.

At the end of the Second World War, he will take picture of the
Koln area after the bombings.

He passed away in 1964 but “it is only in the 1970’s that
Sander acquired notoriety through the publication of a great number
of his portraits by Bucher editions under the title Menschen ohne
Maske (Men without Masks).”
His work will be published again in
1980 under the direction of his son and the participation the great
historian Ulrich Keller and again in 2002 under the direction of the
fantastic Suzanne Lange (person in charge of the conservation of
Sander’s files in Koln).

Augustin-Victor Casasola: between news and history

1.      A photojournalist before anything


Let’s take acloser look at Mexico in our journey towards the history of
social photography.Here is the work of Augustin Victor Casasola known to
be one of the first photographers
to document the life of his country and more specifically the Mexican

Casasola was
born July 28th 1874 in Mexico City. He lost his father when he was 6
and had to work at a really young age as a typographic assistant. As soon as he
is 20 years old he starts working for various newspapers.

Mexican Independence Day – 1906

At 24,
passionate about photography, he officially became photojournalist for El Democrata. His position is ideal to
contemplate history in the making. The 1900’s brought great progress for
photographs one of which was half-ton. Its use on high velocity presses
revolutionized the way to print pictures. Photos replace gravures in newspapers
to illustrate events. Readers are asking to see “real things” and photography
takes a larger place in newspapers. 85% of the population is illiterate and
therefor pictures have a most important role to play in the spreading of
information. What was once seen as a simple illustration becomes an information
medium itself.

In 1907 Casasola
the fearless succeeds in getting closer and closer to history in the making.
The General Lisandro Barillas, former president of Guatemala was shot. The
killers were to be executed at Belen’s jail. Taking picture of the execution
was prohibited. Casasola climbed a telephone post in order to take a picture
from atop the prison’s walls. This extraordinary exploit earned him a special

Fortino Samano en Paredon, 1917 Augustin Victor Casasola

In 1917 he is
made vice-consul of Mexico in Arizona. A group picture shows him next to consul
Delgado, a camera in his hand. If he has at heart the will to see his country
shine throughout the world, he always keeps in mind the fact that he is a
photographer, knowing that pictures can go across borders without the fear of
not being understood.

2.       Creator of one of the first photographic agency in the

Soldier during
the Mexican Revolution – 1914

He knows the
importance of picture to vehiculate ideas and he wants to be able to practice
photojournalism at the best of his capacities. For this reason, in 1894, he
creates with the help of fellow journalists the first Mexican photographic
agency (Agencia Fotografica Mexicana). His goal is to give out tools in order
to promote photojournalism in Mexico and to link newsparpers with
photographers. The aim of the agency is also to produce pictures of the Mexican
Revolution to be distributed throughout the world. His moto is “I have or I can
produce the photos you need”. Casasola works with foreign newspapers and
supplies pictures to document what makes his country History.

Francisco “Pancho”
Villa and Emiliano Zapata – Dec. 6, 1914

Inspired by the work of European and American
photographers Atget and Riss, his way to take photography evolves. Later on he
will receive the thanks of the president ad interim Francisco
León de la Barra
for is work
« inaugurating a new phase toward
freedom of photographic press
». Photography is seen as a
revolutionary political tool for it is considered as a “free” medium.

Assasination of
Emiliano Zapata – April 10, 1919

The agency
expands and soon 423 persons worked there. Its name changed in 1912 and it became the
Mexican Agency of information and photography. It started purchasing pictures
from nonprofessional photographers and selling those to foreign organizations
and newspapers. When the Imparcial (the
journal with which he worked the most) stoped being published, Casasola took
back all the pictures taken during the Mexican Revolution. He compiled a great
number of his own pictures in an album untitled “Historico Grafico” covering the events that took place during the
Revolution. It is difficult to be sure which of the pictures thus published
were taken by Casasola himself since his brother was also a photographer and
signed his work under the same name and because most of the pictures were not
signed by anyone. In any case, Casasola is only able to publish the first six
volumes of his work (from 1910 to 1912) since the albums do not meet their

3.       Casasola, an archivist of the present

keeping traces, compiling images over and over… that’s what seems to obsess
Casasola. As soon as 1900 he started a great work of archiving photographies
which turned into the “Casasola’s file”. This file was of vital importance for
Casasola. With these pictures he illustrates political facts, day to day life,
political parties, social and religious events. Photography is used as a way to
create archives. Images of events are substitutes to the events themselves. In
1920 a bunch of pictures taken from this file were published in Rotografico. They are considered as extraordinary
documents meant to document the social, political, cultural and military history
of Mexico. Great Heroes from the Revolution share a seat with criminals and
prostitutes in front of Casasola’s camera.

It became more
and more obvious that Casasola was more than a fact recorder. His portraits,
most specifically his group pictures, show an exceptional talent. Casasola was
a man of great stature which gave him a different point of view on things when
he took pictures. It is what gives them their character. These pictures reveal
a rare and fine composition of space. It underlines mimics and relationships
between the subjects of his camera. Casasola also is really cautious about
quality of the lights he uses to shoot his pictures, particularly when he is
shooting portraits.

Augustín Víctor Casasola – Woman Behind Bars, Mexico City

His subjective point of view on the news of his
country and the universality of the subjects he choose to photograph gives to
his work a greater meaning than that of any other photojournalist. He has seen
his country through many chances during twenty years and tries to document this
changes while being as close as possible from the human. Between actuality and
history, the immediacy of photography is a privileged witness to events of all

passed away the 30th of March 1938, after having contaminating his sons, among
which Gustavo Zappatta Casasola, with the photographical virus.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) and the rising of modernism in the world of photography

Portrait of Paul Strand, by Alfred Stiglietz (1919)

Paul Strand was born in New York City in october1980. His parents sent him to the Ethical Culture Fieldston Shool where he waslucky enough to follow photography classes given by Lewis Hine, whose work we
have already praised in a previous post. During a fieldtrip to Alfred Stiglietz’
Gallery organized by Lewis Hine, the young Paul Strand will discover the work
of great artists as Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick H. Evans, Gertrude
Kasebier, David Octavius Hill, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence
White. Then and there, he decided to dedicate his life to photography. Lewis
Hine will not only teach him this medium but also turn him into a real
humanist. During seven years Paul Strand will dedicate all his time to photography,
largely influenced by the pictoralist movement, inspired by artists like Edward
Steichen and Clarence White.

Stieglitz is his mentor and he pays him regular
visits to present him with his photos. Throughout critics and encouragement
Strand will improve his thoughts on the medium and progress in his esthetical

As soon as 1915,
Paul Strand will part away from Pictoralism and adopt a new technic working on
three main themes: movement in the city, abstractions and street portraits.

Movements in the

From the El, 1915 – Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976). Platinum
print; 13 ¼ x 10 3/16 in. (33.6 x 25.9 cm).
Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.55.221)

Throughout the 1910’s Strand photos of New York
City’s streets were structured around slow movements and represented in most
cases a single person as the above picture illustrates. Strand’s goal is to
capture contrasts between the urban rigor and the lives of the inhabitants of
the Big Apple. This picture is representative of this goal. The power of the
iron structure and the shadows of the street contrast strongly with the small
stature of the lonely walker on the top right inside of the picture.  

2.    Abstractions

Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916 Paul Strand – Silver–platinum print;
12 15/16 x 9 5/8 in.
(32.8 x
24.4 cm)

Paul Strand is largely
influenced by the painters exposed in Stieglitz’ gallery « The Little
Galleries of the Photo-Secession »,
on 291 Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz will participate in the
rising of modern art by exposing for the first time in the United States
artists such as Rodin, Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso. This will start
Paul Strand reflection on the construction of his photos and the relationship
between the shapes of the objects he shoots. Through this reflection he learned
how to create depth and movement in the compact universe of photography. Slowly
Strand gave up on the realty of objects and recognizable shapes trading them
for abstract structures. The most representative picture of this movement would
be « Abstraction, Twin Lakes,
shoot in 1916. It is considered as the first intentionally
abstract photography. 

Geometric Backyards, New York, 1917 Paul Strand – Platinum print; 10 x 13 1/8
(25.4 x 33.3 cm)

This picture is the view from Paul Strand’s
family apartment. It is a view he was given to see almost every day for 24
years, but it is only in 1917 that he sees the geometrical abstraction of the
place and notices that the whole city of New York is a “visible abstraction”.

Impressed by Strand’s work, Stieglitz gives him
the great opportunity to expose in his gallery. Many of his pictures will be
exposed in Camera Work, a magazine
created by Alfred Stieglitz in order to promote Pictoralism. For Stieglitz,
Strand’s pictures are “the direct expression of the passing time”.

3.    Street portraits

Blind, 1916 Paul Strand – Platinum print; 13 3/8 x
10 1/8 in. (34 x 25.7 cm) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933

Paul Strand is also known for the portraits of New-Yorkers
he took. The persons he shoots are representative of the city of the time and especially
of Five Points in Lower East Side which is the heart of the slumps where
migrants lived. He shot the bearded beggars, the Irish, the elderly Jews, the
scrambling Europeans and the blind street sellers

Paul Strand portraits of New York inhabitants
were taken in a fascinating fashion. He wanted to take his pictures without
people noticing him and therefore he had to invent and ingenious stratagem. He
installed a fake lens on his camera in order to distract the subjects of his
photos. When the people came closer he would make a 90° turn pointing the fake lens
another direction. The real lens however was hidden under his armpit and faced
the person he wanted to photograph. As Lewis Hine before him, Paul Strand
documented poverty in New York City and the way of life in a modern urban

Bling was published in 1917 in Camera Work, and immediately became the symbol of the new American photography.
This picture represents the objectivity of documentary photography while
following the simple lines of modernism.

Harold Greengard, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1917 Paul Strand. Silver–platinum print; 10 x 13 in.
(24.5 x 33 cm)

Paul Strand gives up on
esthetical principles and rejects stylization to become one of the first photographers
to promote « straight photography ». This portrait of his best friend,
Harold Greengard, is a perfect illustration of this movement. The spontaneity
of the picture is of the outmost evidence. Throughout the following decades
Paul Strand will become a film maker. In 1920 he will make whith Charles
Sheeler his first short film: Manhatta. In
the mute movie, they describe the day to day life of New York City.

Rebecca, New York, ca. 1923 Paul Strand. Palladium print; 7 5/8 x
9 11/16 in. (19.4 x 24.6 cm)

In 1922 Paul
Strand gets married with Rebecca Salsbury whome he will often photograph in
very intimate times and at close range.

Uruapan de Progreso, Michoacan Mexico

After his divorce he will move to Mexico where
he’ll live from 1932 to 1935. Sensitive to social reforms lead by the Mexican
Revolution and artists like Diego Rivera, he will work on a movie, Redes
(1936). This work is half documentary and half fiction and was commissioned the
Mexican government who wanted to illustrate a fishermen’s strike. This movie
will be the first realized by Fred Zinnemann. Paul Strand also worked on other
documentaries such as The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
and Native Land (1942) a movie denouncing police
forces violence and private militias working for employers in order to promote
civil rights movements.

Paul Strand will remarry in 1935 with Virginia
Stevens whom he will divorce in 1949 before going to the Native Land Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia where
he will receive an award.

In 1950 the photographer
moves to France where he gets married with Hazel Kingsbury, the woman whom will share his
life until the end in Orgeval. During this last period of his life he will
publish six books: Time in New England
(1950), La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (1955), Tir a’Mhurain / Outer Hebrides (1962), Living Egypt (1969) and
Ghana: an African portrait

Young Boy Gondeville France, (1951) – Paul Strand

Tailors apprentice, Luzzara (1953) – Paul Strand 

The family Luzzara, Italy (1953) – Paul Strand 

Young Ali, Kalata el Kobra, Delta, Egypt (1959) – Paul Strand 

Chief and Elders, Nayagnia, Ghana (1976) – Paul Strand 

Asena Wara, Leader of the Womens’ Party, Wa Ghana (1976) – Paul Strand

Sources :

Alice Austen (1866-1952) a woman ahead of her time

(Self) Portrait, Monday, September 19th 1892, 3:45pm

1.      A humanistphotograph before time

Alice Austen was abandoned by her father and raised
by her mother and grandparents in the family house, Clear Confort,
where she will live all her life. She has the chance to live in a
very loving familial environment and protected from any material
difficulties despite the absence of her father.

At 11, Alice Austen receives from her uncle, captain
for the Danish merchant marine a photographic camera. She is
immediately fascinated by this new invention and will dedicate 40
years of her life to the production of more than 8000 pictures.
Helped by another uncle, Peter, a chemistry professor, she will learn
from a very young age the necessary theory to develop her
photographies. She installs her photographic laboratory in the attic
of the family house where she has to bring water thanks to a bucket.
At 18, Austen photographic abilities can already be compared to those
of a professional photograph. The oldest photos taken by Austen are
from that time. They depict her daily life as well as her family, her
friends, her love, her house, her garden and makes some
self-portraits more elaborated.

Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self dressed up as
men, 4:40 p.m., Oct. 15th, 1891

Very quickly she stops conforming with these
proximity photographies. She starts discovering the streets of Staten
Island with her bike and the 25 kg of photographic equipment. One of
the only photographies published with a commercial purpose is the one
of her friend Violet Ward (author of Bycicling for Laidies) riding
a bike, as slow as possible so
the picture is not blurry.

Weeling, 1896

Very often she alto takes the ferry to go to
Manhattan where she takes a lot of pictures. Known for her street
photography, she captures accurately the immigrants coming down from
the ship to Ellis Island, as well as the sweepers, postmen or

Contrary to her contemporaries (Jacob Riis
particularly) she doesn’t photography the misery of New York slums,
but the smiles of the less wealthy (Deux Chiffonniers 1897).
Nobody can say that this way of photographing persons is a a way of
denying the existence of misery. Nevertheless, by doing so, Austen
gives us a representation of those men and women dignified and

Rag Pickers, 23rd Street, 1896

She is one of the first woman photographer in the
United States and certainly the more prolific one. Moreover, Alice
Austen is different to her contemporaries because she dares to go out
with her camera leaving the security of a studio. Her street
photographies are between an artistic representation and a
documentary. She describes the world in images and gives us her point
of view on the life during that time. She documents precisely her
pictures, giving indications about the technique used, the time of
pause, the lighting conditions and the subject she is representing.

She choses to photograph her friends but also does
more creative work without ever veritably looking to live from her
art. She participates in the illustration of her friend’s work, Daisy
Elliot a gymnastic professor presenting the good and bad postures to
have during exercise.

She also participates in a work commanditated by
Doctor Doty, from the public health services about the local
establishment of Quarantine, reserved for immigrants who just arrived
to the continent. It will be a work that will take her almost a
decade. During that time, she will go to the Hoffman and Swindurn
Island, next to Ellis Island, reserved for the quarantine of the

Quarantine Island, 1896

The composition of her images reminds us the canon of
classical beauty of the 19th century. They refer to the
idea that the nature represented by the artist must capture the
beauty of the surroundings and the spirit that comes from it.

2.       A woman ahead
of her time

Austen is not only a photographer, she is also an
independent woman with multiple facets. Landscaper, athlete, she is a
known tennis-woman (she will be member of the first tennis club of
the US in Livington), she is also the first woman in Staten Island to
have a car.

She will never get married and will spend 50 years in
company of Gertrude Tate, which is very uncommon for that Victorian
time she lives in.

Gertrude Tate will be the subject of some of her
photographies. Professor and dancer, Tate will accompany Alice during
her travels to Europe and will move in with her in Clear Confort in
1917, even though her family doesn’t approve of this union.

Alice Austen, Trude & I, August 6, 1891, 11pm

During her lifetime, Alice Austen is an important
figure in Staten Island and New York and is part of many clubs.
Horticulturist, she creates a club for this other passion.

This doesn’t prevent Alice Austen to be another
victim of the 1929 crisis and at 63 years she finds herself in a very
difficult economic situation. With her partner she opens a Tea Salon
in the family house before having to sell, one by one, all her
furniture. She manages to protect her photographies by giving them to
a friend Loring McMillen. Gertrude Tate’s family accepts to give her
an apartment, but only to her. This will live Alice Austen obliged to
find another refuge. Her work will be found by Oliver Jensen who
wishes to edit the work of known women. The benefice of this
publication will allow Alice Austen to get out of poverty. She will
have the chance to assist to the first important exposition of her

Auteur inconnu, Alice Austen le jour de la
première exposition.

The city of New York will recognise the importance of
her work for the city history. She will then be able to buy the house
where she grew up. Clear Confort is today a museum where are exposed
Alice Austen work as well as other contemporary creations. The
pictures presented in this article come from the permanent collection
of this museum.

Sources :




·         « Tout
sur la Photo, Panorama des mouvements et des chefs-d’œuvre »,
ed Flammarion, sous la direction de Juliet Hacking. ;Zo���N

Atget, a documentary photographer, and much more

Joueur d’orgue, 1898, Paris.

What exactly inEugène Atget’s work fascinated surrealists, archives and Parisian museum andpeople like Walter Benjamin? What gave the thousands of pictures he took this
ambivalence? Are his pictures a work of art, a simple attempt to document his
time or a social work? What strike one whom reads Atget’s biography is the
modesty with which he describes his own work. Although he played the Parisian artistic
field at the end of the XIXth century, he seemed to put himself at the fringes
of this little world. He considered his photographical work as one of a blue
collar. His aim was to give painters raw inspirational material, without even
thinking his own picture could be art.

At that time
photography was not yet a medium wildly used by artists to create art pieces.
Photography interested them for its instantaneity which gave this technic the
value of a proof a the present instant. It might be for this reason that Atget
walk the streets of Paris doomed to demolished and took pictures of buildings
about to be put to the ground. Much has been written about the mutations of the
City of Paris whether it was to celebrate the modernity of the new building (synonym
to safety and public health) or on the contrary to regret the disappearing of landmarks
of “ancient times”, to comment changes usually indicates there is an uneasiness
around social mutations created by modern life in general. Atget, while he
claimed only to be collecting images to document the work of others or to help
painters, was a sociologist and an historian of the present times.  

Bérénice Abbott
gives us the key to understand Atget’s work by stating that “we will remember him
as an historian of urbanism, a true romantic, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of
camera, whom work allows us to weave a large tapestry of the French

Bitumiers, 1899-1900, Paris.

With this
picture Atget shows a kind of work about to disappear. Indeed, few years after
it was taken Atget would have been only able to shoot large engines covering
the ground with asphalt. If this picture is overexposed, it seems that it
portrays perfectly the atmosphere of a sunny summer day. Details in high lights
are lost but the men working are well exposed and the attitude frozen for
eternity. The way the two characters are kneeling seems to be exhausting. The
man standing, carrying a jar full of tar seems to be in no less pain. His
posture, the belt that we can see around his lower back to protect him portrays
a life of hard labor. This picture is quite simple to read, it was framed from
bellow in order for the photographer to be at eye level with the people spending
there life in there crooked position. The aim of the photographer is obviously
to document his day to day life, but doing he immerses us in the lives of the
laboring class.

Marchande de mouron, 1899, Paris.

Atget did a series
on the forgotten jobs of Paris in order to show not only that this job existed
but the changes that happened during his period. Why did he choose to show
these little street jobs and the people earning their living this way? These
jobs are slowly but surely disappearing. By fixing them on the planks of his
camera obscura, Atget fixes at the same time the reality of his everyday life,
a urban landscape, and situations and figures about to disappear.

The Marchande de mouron is quite revealing of the humanity with which
Atget takes his pictures. Contrary to the series he took shooting empty
streets of Paris; here he clearly photographed the woman. Her face is clear and
almost at the center of the picture. She looks at us strait in the eyes and
smiles frankly. She is seated on the pavement and we can imagine that the
photograph had to lower himself in order to take his picture with his heavy camera.
We also notice that the woman carries a sleep babe in her arms, at the same
level as the “mouron” she is selling. Her surrounding are all blurred has if
the interest of the picture was not the job of this woman, nor the place where
she is, but her mare presence in the street. Her stare and her smile are

Porte d’Italie : zoniers.

The series Atget
took on the « zoniers » was a commissioned work. Here again his work
is ambivalent. His will to give a faithful account of the situation
is evident, as evident as the human vision of the photographer. He shoots this
slum with the same care his photographed the entrance of beautiful shops and
Parisian buildings. The multiple shades of grey enhance the details of the
detritus on the floor giving us an incongruous picture.

Eugène Atget,
Romanichels, groupe, 1912, Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 21.2 x
17 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Abbott-Levy Collection, Partial
gift of Shirley C. Burden.

as in the picture of the Mouron seller, Atget shows us here the face of a proud
woman right in the middle of the picture. Here again the photographer lower
himself at the level of his subject and makes her the center of our attention.

Eugne Atget (1857-1927), A photographer and reluctant artist


Born in Libourne, France. Atget enters in the navy at13 years old. Later, we know that he is part of a theatre troupe heis forced to quit in 1898 after an infection of his vocal cords.

He considers photography as a source of documentation
for painters and other professionals. During 20 years he takes
pictures of Paris and sells them in his studio. He will take more tan
8000 street pictures that are gathered in series and sub-series. He
sells his pictures to historian and to libraries.

Cours de l’Auberge du Cheval Blanc.

Very little known during his life-time, his work is
recognised by the vary famous Man Ray in the 1920’s. To take his
pictures, Atget continues to use a view camera, which is outdated but
gives them a surrealistic effect. Thanks to the insistence of Man
Ray, Atget is published in the magazine Révolution Surréaliste.
At the beginning, Atget refuses. Brassaï reminds us that « Atget
doesn’t consider himself as an artistic photographer, but as a
documentarist able to give painters, theatre or cinema decorators any
view of the city ».
this reason, he doesn’t want his job to be associated to artistic
photography. Moreover, if his picture « Parisians
observing a solar eclipse in 1912 »
the cover of the surrealistic magazine in 1926, he demands that the
picture stay anonymous.

Parisiens observant une éclipse du soleil en 1912

Man Ray is fascinated by Atget new photographic
language. He does the opposite of pictoralism and gives to the
situation he is photographing a neutral point of view. Nevertheless,
he concentrates on details that would be otherwise ignored. Most of
the time he represents phantasmagoric individuals or persons in
incongruous situations. In other words he proposes pictures without
artifice. This neutrality and coldness makes the critic, Walter
Benjamin, say that Atget images can be compared to pictures of crime
scenes (very popular in that time). According to Robert Sobieszek he
embodies « everything the 19th century photography
aspires ».

Even if Man Ray has contributed significantly to
Atget reputation, Berenice Abbott gave to the artist and his
influence on history of photography, an international dimension. With
Julien Levy, owner of a New York art gallery, they buy a part of
Atget work. Thanks to this publicity, Atget’s work will influence a
new generation of street photographers. Since 1935, the french
photographer influence will impact the New York photography. The
images he produces sacrifice the foreground clearness  in favour of
the background. This is a very important composition element in Atget
work. We will study it in detail tomorrow.

Atget has a subjective approach influenced by
surrealism. He looks for a visual mode to reflect the modern life,
its speed and the alienation that follows. These are the
characteristics of Atget work and will influence later street
american photographers as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand or Lee


He photographs poverty on the street of Paris.
Brought by the industrial revolution, slums grow at the outskirts of
the capital, between the city fortifications and surrounding areas.
« Zoniers » are
the inhabitants of this geographical area. They live in precarious
barracks or in trailers and can only survive by waste recovery. Atget
photographs them and constitute an album entitled Zoniers

His whole life he
had to face financial difficulties, and dies in complete misery.

Sources :

Tout sur la Photo, Panorama des mouvements et des
, ed Flammarion, sous la direction de Juliet

La photographie sociale, collection Photo Poche,
édition Actes Sud. Michel Christolhomme.