Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Eugène Atget "Old Paris" at the Art Gallery of NSW

Coin de la Rue Valette et Pantheon (1925)

The photography of Eugène Atget opens up an entirely distinctive perception of Paris that is quite separate from what we have seen before. The hauntingly quiet streets, deteriorating apartment buildings and overgrown parks enrich the strong visual history of one of the world's favourite cities. The Art Gallery of NSW's exhibition "Old Paris"captures a pre-Haussmann Paris through a sepia lens in astonishing reality. In an age of retouching and digital enhancements, it is refreshing to notice the original art of photography and its ability to represent and articulate in its own way. A few street characters grace the collection but there is an overwhelming majority of urban landscapes - empty streets, parks and never-ending staircases.

"Old Paris" works chronologically through Atget's work while also separating thematically into his favourite subject matters. No print is enlarged and so it's an exhibition to take the time and look closely at the works. Atget captured the flavour of each arrondissement, from Montmatre's popular Place du Tetre to the serene grandiosity of the fifth and sixth quarters. The Eiffel Tower does not make an appearance, and other famous sites seem to peek out behind anonymous buildings, providing us with an authenticity which inspired documentary photographers to follow.

The intimate nature of the exhibition allows us to see the physical remnants of Atget's work - a scribbled number on a negative, clamp marks, naturel vignetting. "Old Paris" is indeed an ode to the monumental city but also an illustration of city life in the 18th century. The imagery seems at once both surreal and archival. It is the first time that Atget's work has been shown in Australia due to the fragile nature of the prints. The exhibition is attractive to both avid photographers and curious newcomers and one not to be missed by French fans.

Old Paris is at the Art Gallery of NSW until November 4.

Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville (1921)

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