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“I can say that I now possess all of Old Paris.” This extraordinary claim, made in 1920 by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), was not as outlandish as it sounds. Writing in a letter to the director of the Institut des Beaux-Arts, Atget was referring to the completion of a lifetime’s project: capturing the city’s streets, monuments and views in their endless variety.

When he died seven years later, the photographic pioneer left behind more than 25,000 images and 8,500 glass negatives, divided among government institutions and private collectors. This cache of images remains the largest ever produced to document the French capital.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Atget’s birth, and the 80th anniversary of his death, the Bibliothèque Nationale has put together the first retrospective of his work to be shown in France (two previous retrospectives were held in the US). The astonishing collection illuminates the career of one of photography’s neglected masters, and brings to life a city that no longer exists.

Atget’s artistic trajectory tells us much about the evolution of photography. His early ambition was to make a living as a stage actor. An apprenticeship in music was cut short by military duties but, once released from the service, he began to edit and illustrate pamphlets. In 1892, desperate for money, he took out an advertisement in an arts magazine offering “documents for artists”.

At barely half a century old, photography was merely considered a useful technical innovation, strictly subordinate to figurative painting. There was a market for photographic likenesses to aid painters in preparation for their work – landscapes, still lives, street views. By supplying them, Atget stumbled into the profession that would occupy him for the rest of his days.

His earliest pictures were neither technically nor pictorially accomplished. But unlike most photographers serving painters’ needs, Atget developed a system. He devised his own taxonomy – with subjects divided into categories such as “old trades”, “interiors”, “shop-fronts”, “ornaments” – and set about capturing scenes from Parisian life.

Soon Atget’s efforts to “possess” as many aspects of the city as possible acquired a new rationale. He had witnessed, during the 1850s and 1860s, the destruction of almost two-thirds of medieval Paris under Baron Haussmann’s planning schemes. As late as the 1890s, when Atget took to walking the streets with his camera, whole blocks of old Paris continued to be demolished. His work became a labour of conservation.

The artist label never suited Atget. He saw himself as a hoarder of images, and found that money could be made from selling his collection to institutions interested in the city’s heritage. As his documentary ambition broadened, so did his stash of photographs, which he organised into series: “Landscapes”, “Art in Old Paris”, “Topography of Paris”, “Environs”.

The Bibliothèque Nationale’s retrospective is ordered chronologically, beginning with the photographer’s early efforts to depict street trades. Atget’s herb vendors, basket weavers and lamp sellers are romantic figures, posing uneasily during long exposures. They are endearing but unremarkable, a photographic equivalent of the 18th-century “Cries of Paris” prints of life dans la rue.

With time, however, Atget’s images gradually empty themselves of the human element. He dwells extensively on architecture in details, ruins and perspectives. His photographs become sharper, as does his eye for composition.

The Paris of his later work is a ghost town. People are occasionally present, but mostly off-stage. When they do appear, they are other-worldly apparitions – blurred, obscured, vaguely spied through a window. (The only exceptions are his pictures of zoniers, street dwellers from the infamous zones between the city’s ramparts and the suburbs; there are also photos of prostitutes, undertaken under commission later in his life.)

Certain prints, such as the ones in a sequence taken on the Rue Quincampoix, are almost abstract. The city’s haphazard geometry, in bleached whites and rich darks, resembles the backdrop to an expressionist film. Indeed, Atget’s photography manages to make all of Paris seem like a movie set. We have all seen those vistas, even if we’ve been nowhere near the French capital. Some, such as the view of Pont Saint-Michel through mist, are now iconic. They may appear to be clichés, but it was Atget who shot them first.

There is an intense nostalgia about the photographs in this show. It does not originate in the distance separating us from pictures taken a century ago, but in the feeling that this cityscape was vanishing even as Atget set out to capture it. It is difficult to shake the impression that those alleys and street-corners were as short-lived as Atget’s street vendors.

Many 20th-century critics derided Atget’s work. He was called naïf, antiquarian, even reactionary. In fact Atget was unknowingly laying the groundwork for modern documentary photography. His aesthetic influence is evident in the work of later photographers such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. His Parisian ramblings set the scene for other photographic flâneurs such as Brassaï, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier Bresson.

Surprisingly for someone who thought of himself as a workaday collector of views, Atget was even appropriated by the surrealists. His next-door neighbour, the American avant-garde photographer Man Ray, published a handful of his pictures in André Breton’s magazine La Révolution Surréaliste. Rather than its last romantic, Atget was photography’s first modern.

Man Ray’s assistant, the American photographer Berenice Abbott, became the greatest champion of Atget’s work. It is to her that we owe the only known photographic portrait of Atget, taken months before his death, and also on display at the Bibliothèque Nationale. In it he is gaunt and hunched over, almost haunted, as if staring into a lost past that lingered only in his luminous images.

‘Atget: Une Rétrospective’, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Richelieu), www.bnf.fr, tel +33 1 53 79 59 59. Until July 1

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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