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  Eugene Atget, Photographer

Believed to have been born in the French town of Loburne on February 12, 1857, very little is known about Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget except that he was orphaned by the age of five. After years at sea on a merchant sea, the young man set his sights on acting, and entered the National Conservatory of Music and Drama in Paris. However, his thespian training was thwarted by his call to military service, and because his duties prevented him from fulfilling the rigorous class requirements, Mr. Atget was expelled in 1881.

Nevertheless, after his military stint was completed, Mr. Atget joined of several theatrical road companies, which is how he met and married an actress named Valentine DeLofosse Compagnon. After failing to establish himself as a painter, Mr. Atget decided to become a photographer at the relatively late age of 41. He quickly realized that there would be a market for his services in the entertainment industry, for architects, stage designers, and artists often relied on photographs of subjects to assist in their creative process.

As his experience grew, so did his subject matter, and by the twentieth century, Mr. Atget was photographing artworks, landscapes, Parisian landmarks, and historic architecture. However, despite his growing reputation among the artistic community - which included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque among others - he and his wife constantly struggled to make ends meet. Sadly, with the onset of the First World War, Mr. Atget’s photography business was halted, plunging him and his wife deeper into poverty.

After the war, Mr. Atget set up shop once again, and in 1920, when the French art bureau purchased 2,000 of his negatives and plates for historic preservation, he finally achieved a semblance of financial security. However, Mr. Atget received very little international recognition for his photographs. That all changed when acclaimed American black-and-white photographer Berenice Abbott introduced him to fellow American expatriate photographer and painter Man Ray. A proponent of the Surrealist movement, Man Ray was fascinated by the shadows, reflections, and blurred imagery that characterized Eugene Atget's photography. He purchased some of the photographs for an influential Surrealistic publication, which introduced many artists of the period to the impressive dream-like effects Mr. Atget was able to achieve with a camera instead of a paintbrush.

Unfortunately, Mr. Atget's much-deserved prosperity was short lived. The devastation over his wife’s death in 1926 rendered him unable to continue working. Eugene Atget would join her one year later, on August 4, 1927. During his nearly three decades as a photographer of nearly every aspect of French artistic and street life, Mr. Atget amassed a collection of nearly 10,000 photographs. His loyal friend and onetime neighbor Berenice Abbott cemented his legacy by persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to purchase many of the photographs in his archive. Subsequent exhibitions of his works have earned Eugene Atget a place of honor as a true pioneer of early twentieth-century photography.

Ref: The Grolier Library of International Biographies, Volume 9 (Princeton, NJ: The Philip Lief Group, Inc.,1990).

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2012-02-24 20:41:37

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