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. It’s one of more than 10,000 photographs Eugène 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 he’d seen countless times in Atget’s famous photo. “It was as if you went into the ladies’ room and there’s Audrey Hepburn doing her lipstick in the mirror. What are you doing here?” 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 — not a scene from any Atget photo, yet imbued with the spirit of his work.
Rauschenberg then vowed to return to Paris “and explore with my camera whether the haunting and beautiful city of
“It seems clear that Atget was seeking the old pre- Haussmann Paris, which began to disappear just as photography was beginning,” 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 Rauschenberg’s rephotographs in 2006. “Chris was seeking the Rauschenberg rephotographed 500 of Atget’s outdoor scenes, skipping those that had drastically changed or that “didn’t feel the way they used to.” same thing, though to do so in the late 20th century rather than the late 19th is quite a different thing.”
Rauschenberg carried a 35mm digital camera with a 28mm perspective-correction lens and no tripod: a stark contrast to Atget’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 — 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 Rauschenberg’s pack. Laid out by arrondissement, the book, he says, “made it very easy to find Atget’s images. As soon as it was light enough, I’d photograph continuously until it was too dark. The only time I sat down was on the subway.”
Rauschenberg rephotographed 500 of Atget’s outdoor scenes, skipping those that had drastically changed (like Les Halles Market, now a huge mall), or that “didn’t feel the way they used to.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t easily get access to the beautiful interiors of mansions and government buildings that Atget photographed. He says, “I did think, Can I try to pull strings and make connections? But what’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?”He continues:
The majority of Atget’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 “the decisive moment” and into “a long now,” 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 you’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 didn’t try to replicate the exact locations and angles of Atget’s original photos. Instead, like Atget might have, he stood farther back or to one side to avoid parked vehicles. Given only weeks, unlike Atget’s decades, he also didn’t try to match seasons or times of day.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2013 issue.