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The life and the intention of Eugene Atget are fundamentally unknown to us. A few documented facts and a handful of recollections and legends provide a scant outline of the man:
He was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857, and worked as a sailor during his youth; from the sea he turned to the stage, with no more than minor success; at forty he quit acting, and after a tentative experiment with painting Atget became a photographer, and began his true life's work.
Until his death thirty years later he worked quietly at his calling. To a casual observer he might have seemed a typical commercial photographer of the day. He was not progressive, but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death. He was little given to experiment in the conventional sense, and less to theorizing. He founded no movement and attracted no circle. He did however make photographs which for purity and intensity of vision have not been bettered.
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It is a tribute to the tenacity of art-historical thought, if not to its receptivity, that the adjective photographic is still used to describe a style of pictorial indication that was perfected by Jan van Eyck four centuries before Daguerre. The fact of the matter is that photography has managed only infrequently and with difficulty (most often in the studio) to approximate the airless and precisely measured cataloguing of discrete facts that was so handsomely achieved by the painters of the fifteenth century.
It is true that for a century most photographers actually did their best to match the neat and conceptual descriptiveness of traditional paintings; and they were regularly frustrated by the fact that their pictures so seldom looked quite as they should --- meaning quite as they would have if rendered according to the pictorial conventions of the Renaissance.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan was perhaps the best of the Civil War photographers, and he was better still when he went west after the War as photographer for the government explorations of the Fortieth Parallel (1867-1869) and the One Hundredth Meridian (1871, 1873-1874).
Perhaps the War had prepared O'Sullivan for the conditions of work, and of survival, that he met in the West: the extreme heat and cold, dangerous water to travel on, or no water at all, mosquitoes that drove men half crazy, hostile or treacherous Indians, immense distances, and the intermittent suspicion that one might be hopelessly lost.
There was also frequent failure.
On the 1871 expedition, O'Sullivan made about three hundred negatives that were good enough to keep. (Mediocre pictures were scraped from the plates to save the glass for another attempt.) Almost all of those he had kept were destroyed when several of the expedition's boats capsized in the Colorado River.
The titles of pictures made by the Photo-Secessionists are frequently puzzling. It cannot be assumed that the woman in the picture reproduced here was actually a war widow, or even the child's mother; photographers like Gertrude Kasebier loved to make photographs that were essentially, and frankly, fictions.
Certainly adequate precedent had been set by Julia Margaret Cameron, who had photographed Sir Henry Taylor not only as himself but as Friar Laurence, with Juliet, as Prospero, with Miranda, and as Ahasuerus, with Queen Esther.
One is tempted to believe that if the woman had been a war widow, Kasebier would have considered it tasteless to say so, in which case the picture might have been entitled "Elegy".
Today we are perversely charmed by the sentimentality and naivete of the picture's nominal content. The picture's true content, however, has to do less with widowhood than with the visual mechanics of picture construction. On these grounds it is a highly sophisticated and challenging picture.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy possessed one of the liveliest and most versatile minds to come out of the revolution in artistic thinking that occurred in Europe after the First World War.
In addition to being a painter, designer, and photographer, Moholy was perhaps the most persuasive and effective theoretician of the concept of art education that grew out of the Bauhaus, the experimental design school that flowered briefly in Germany during the days of the Weimar Republic.
Through his own work, his teaching and writing, and through the influence of his colleagues and followers at the Chicago Institute of Design (which Moholy founded in 1938), his ideas have had a profound effect on the art and art theory of the past generation.
In none of the areas of his concern has his influence been greater than in photography. His deep interest in the photogram and the photomontage, techniques that stood as a halfway house between photography and painting, provided a challenging option to the doctrine of straight photography, which, especially in the United States, dominated serious photography.
One might believe that the photograph reproduced here was made by Moholy-Nagi, or Kertesz, but it would be difficult to believe that it was made before the twenties.
Certain possibilities concerning the appearance of the world first surfaced at that time, just as different possibilities had revealed themselves in previous periods, and would reveal themselves in future periods. It is, if one focuses on the fact, astonishing that no one had drawn or painted or photographed a picture quite in this spirit before 1920 A.D., although there was no technical reason why it should not have been done half a millennium earlier, in the square of San Marco.
Perhaps the point is that new pictures are derived from old pictures, just as in biology new species are derived from existing species. In both cases, deductive leaps are not really possible. Although there are many missing links in our art historical knowledge, none was skipped as the chain was forged.