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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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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.
Nadar was a writer, a caricaturist, a balloonist, a part-time political activist, a photographer, and a friend of the painters, writers, and intellectuals in Paris during the time of Napoleon III. He is remembered as a photographer, for the portraits that he made of his great contemporaries.
It was only proper that Nadar should have considered painters his friends, since he learned so much and borrowed so freely from their traditions. He did this with great understanding and skill; the hand and coat front of Baron Taylor, right, might have been admired by Ingres himself. On the other hand, no painter would have recorded Taylor's magnificently dyspeptic face with the unremitting truthfulness of Nadar's photograph. Nadar understood that the fidelity of photography was a mixed blessing, and preferred not to make portraits of women, since the results were "too true to nature to please the sitters, even the most beautiful."
Why is this beautiful young woman not bathed in a flood of light, illuminating her youth and her pleasure? Because she is a prisoner in the tower. For what pretender prince did this dark Rapunzel let down her hair? Or for what terrific sacrifice is she preparing herself, to placate what cruel spirit? Is it the fringe of her shawl, behind her on the floor, or a scuttling crab?
Manuel Alvarez Bravo was born in the City of Mexico, behind the cathedral, near the place where the temples of the ancient Mexican gods once stood. Diego Rivera said of his photographs that they were Mexican in their format, their content, and their cause, and that they were therefore full of irony and anguish.
As a rule, photography has not been especially generous to those of her followers possessed by the romantic imagination, but every student of the medium will have his own considerable list of conspicuous exceptions. The romantic temper is distinguished by its quickness to find universal meanings in specific facts. It would seem that this tendency has more often been productive in the literary than in the visual arts, perhaps because pictures are more resolutely physical than words, and thus less accessible to quick symbolic transmutations. It is one thing to write about seeing the world in a grain of sand, and eternity in a flower, etc., and another thing to make a convincing picture of the idea. Photography especially has generally worked best when it has tried to discover the differences between the world and a grain of sand, rather than belabor their similarities.
On the other hand, pictures that deal only with particulars are useless, if not impossible, and in one guise or another all art doubtless involves a contest between the specific and the generic. In photography Alfred Stieglitz was perhaps the first to make an overt issue of the fact that a photograph could have several meanings (or that the meaning of a photography could have several faces) when he called his late photographs of clouds and other common subjects "equivalents," suggesting that they held optional, equal, alternative meanings.