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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 was recognized long ago that so-called good photographic technique did not invariably make the best picture. Sometimes the gritty, graphic simplicity of the badly made photograph had about it an expressive authority that seemed to fit the subject better than the smooth, plastic description of the classical fine print. It was long assumed however that such pictures were invariably accidents - acts of God, by which news photographers and similar types were occasionally rewarded for their bravery and tenacity. The notion that such pictures represented areas of photographic potential that photographers of artistic ambitions might exploit was simply not entertained.
This situation changed in the 1950's with the rapid increase in the sensitivity of new films, which allowed pictures to be made in almost no light at all. Suddenly the world was flooded with photographs that resembled the image of a badly adjusted television screen. Some of these pictures managed a kind of clarity that depended not on modeling but on drawing - not on the description of surfaces, but the description of shapes and line. Gradually some photographers came to understand and anticipate the behavior of their materials in the new circumstances, and to adjust their seeing accordingly, to grasp the content of the moment in terms of its broad and simple outlines.
Those who have paid even cursory attention to the vocabulary of the high-fashion magazines realize that English has different meanings in this specialized context from those of normal usage. For example, the word "simple" (or the phrase "simple little") is generally used to denote matters that would elsewhere be cited as examples of Byzantine complexity and indirection.
The best fashion photography has often indulged a similar taste for make-believe, and harmless (or almost harmless) mendacity. Irving Penn's simple little picture of a beautiful model in a fancy dress is a masterpiece of the genre. Superficially the picture pretends to a directness and austerity that suggest the nineteenth-century studio portrait: It is devoid of luxurious textures, stage lighting, elegant properties, or an identifiable social ambience. What remains is an almost primitively simple record of a very elegant lady.
Even in the early years of his work as a fashion photographer, Richard Avedon was much interested in motion, or rather in the sense of motion, since his interest was not analytical but hortatory. As a young photographer in the early fifties Avedon seemed to think that motion was intrinsically a good thing. It is possible that Avedon was in fact one of the architects, unwitting or otherwise, of the Jet Set concept, which was based on the premise that people with style do not alight. Among his many memorable portraits, it is difficult to call one to mind that shows the subject sitting down.
In the beginning Avedon attempted to deal with the subject of motion in a rather literal way, by shooting moving subjects at slow shutter speeds, thus describing forms that tended to resemble feathery-edged projectiles. Some viewers felt that these pictures expressed movement. Whether they did or not, they did not describe a great deal about the object in motion. Perhaps for this reason Avedon later radically revised his approach to the problem. He decided (it would seem) that the most interesting thing that photography could do with movement was destroy it, and show its crystal-clear fossil, suspended in perpetuity, like the once-human figures disinterred at Vesuvius, seemingly overtaken in mid-stride; or, more nearly, like faces illuminated by a catastrophic explosion, the significance of which has not yet registered in their expressions.
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.