Early mornings he walked the old Paris with his camera. One day in Saint-Cloud, he came across a spiral-topped gatepost and took a picture of it. Itâ€™s one of more than 10,000 photographs EugÃ¨ne Atget made over 30 years, trying to preserve on film what was vanishing in this great city he loved.
Nearly 100 years later, in 1989, Christopher Rauschenberg suddenly found himself standing before the iron spiral heâ€™d seen countless times in Atgetâ€™s famous photo. â€œIt was as if you went into the ladiesâ€™ room and thereâ€™s Audrey Hepburn doing her lipstick in the mirror. What are you doing here?â€ he says. He rephotographed the gatepost from memory and immediately wondered what else he might find of Atget. There it was: a stone staircase with potted flowers at its base. But the big tree at the top was gone, so he turned and took a picture of a different staircase with a flowerpot and tree â€” not a scene from any Atget photo, yet imbued with the spirit of his work.
Rauschenberg then vowed to return to Paris â€œand explore with my camera whether the haunting and beautiful city of [Atgetâ€™s] vision still existed,â€ he writes in the preface of his book Paris Changing: Revisiting EugÃ¨ne Atgetâ€™s Paris (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). It includes 75 of the 500 black-andwhite pictures he took from 1997-1998, rephotographs of Atgetâ€™s, paired with the originals and mapped by arrondissement, plus essays. In addition, Rauschenbergâ€™s picture of the stone staircase joins 13 others that Atget never photographed in a section titled â€œIn Atgetâ€™s Shoesâ€ (for more, see www.christopherrauschenberg. com).If Rauschenberg had dreamed that gatepost, it would symbolize the very layout of Paris, its 20 arrondissements spiraling out from the center â€” and the open gate would be an invitation from Atget to photograph his world. Rauschenberg waited until he had â€œa big chunk of timeâ€ to walk through that gate. During three three-week visits, he photographed central Paris, where most of Atgetâ€™s locations remain intact.
â€œIt seems clear that Atget was seeking the old pre- Haussmann Paris, which began to disappear just as photography was beginning,â€ says Alison Nordstrom, Ph.D. in an email to me. (Georges Haussmann was the urban planner responsible for renovating Paris in the 1850s and 1860s.) One of the essayists in Paris Changing, Nordstrom is senior curator of photographs at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which exhibited Rauschenbergâ€™s rephotographs in 2006. â€œChris was seeking the Rauschenberg rephotographed 500 of Atgetâ€™s outdoor scenes, skipping those that had drastically changed or that â€œdidnâ€™t feel the way they used to.â€ same thing, though to do so in the late 20th century rather than the late 19th is quite a different thing.â€
Rauschenberg carried a 35mm digital camera with a 28mm perspective-correction lens and no tripod: a stark contrast to Atgetâ€™s bulky 18 x 24 cm view camera with a short-focus lens, glass-plate negatives and cumbersome tripod. Between 1897- 1927, when he did his most important work, his equipment was already becoming obsolete. So was the albumen silver process of his prints â€” photographs, that he never viewed as art, which he sold as visual resources to artists, architects, historians and set designers.
Pages of his photos fill the nearly four-pound book titled Atget Paris (Hazan, 1992) that weighed down Rauschenbergâ€™s pack. Laid out by arrondissement, the book, he says, â€œmade it very easy to find Atgetâ€™s images. As soon as it was light enough, Iâ€™d photograph continuously until it was too dark. The only time I sat down was on the subway.â€
Rauschenberg rephotographed 500 of Atgetâ€™s outdoor scenes, skipping those that had drastically changed (like Les Halles Market, now a huge mall), or that â€œdidnâ€™t feel the way they used to.â€ Unfortunately, he couldnâ€™t easily get access to the beautiful interiors of mansions and government buildings that Atget photographed. He says, â€œI did think, Can I try to pull strings and make connections? But whatâ€™s the importance of that if I can photograph the places on the street that would be seen as an Atget street, and assume the same rich experience?â€He continues:
The majority of Atgetâ€™s places I went to still had the spirit and beauty that transcended time. One of the things that I really like about Paris, and that would have appealed to Atget, is the thickness of time that you feel there. Every block has this richness of history. Time is not only the essential nature of photography, but also, for Atget in particular, his subject matter. He stepped out of â€œthe decisive momentâ€ and into â€œa long now,â€ selecting places with timeless quality and photographing objects that would hold still long enough for a tree to notice them. For me, it has to do with him saying, Take a deep breath, take a look around you. What in your environment is something youâ€™ll care about 1,000 years from now? If you do that, you might find something as beautiful as this.
The main challenge that Rauschenberg faced was all the cars. As a result, he didnâ€™t try to replicate the exact locations and angles of Atgetâ€™s original photos. Instead, like Atget might have, he stood farther back or to one side to avoid parked vehicles. Given only weeks, unlike Atgetâ€™s decades, he also didnâ€™t try to match seasons or times of day.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2013 issue.