A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

Atget, Abbott and the Wonderment of Reality

Dutch TV in the early Sunday evening showed a documentary about two famous photographers of cityscapes: Eugène Atget, working in Paris around 1900-1925 and Berenice Abbott, famous for her pictures of New York in the 1930s. Abbott in fact had two careers, because she also was the one who rescued Atget’s legacy of almost two thousand glass negatives. And it was Atget’s photos of the disappearing old Paris around 1900 that inspired her to document the changes in New York city. The documentary showed the links, but also the differences between the two photographers: Atget as essentially a 19th century romantic, Abbott as a 20th century photographer who learned photography from surrealist Man Ray but who felt inspired by Atget to document New York’s transformation. Some of the surrealist fascination was already visible in Atget’s work, too: he made a number of photos of shop windows with reflections like the one copied here, which lookèd quite modern in the 1920s–Man Ray himself made the contact between Abbott and Atget.

Somehow both Atget and Abbott transcended the simple documenting of the old-and-the-new juxtaposed, intermingled or destroying one another. What is it that makes some photos and some photographers do that trick? I found in both of them the same things that inspire my photography (at a rather more amateurish level of course): “The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise” (Abbott writing about Atget), realising that the art of photography is “selecting what is worthwhile” (Abbott commenting on an Atget photo).

Technically, it was interesting to see how both of them worked with large plate camera’s: 8″x 10″ negatives to get ultimate sharpness, with flexible tilt-and-shift lenses to achieve perpendicular verticals. Digital APC-sensors are not the end of photographic evolution!

Hopefully, the documentary will appear in the Dutch public TV’s archive. Give it a try; it’s 45 well-spent minutes!

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