Atget was famous for photographing Paris early in the morning. In some senses one can say he photographed the emptiness of Paris because there are rarely any people in front of his lens. He sold many of his photographs of scenes and places, so it was advantageous to keep the vision clear of obstructions. Whether he was photographing storefronts filled with mannequins or women’s underware, or photographing the streets leading to the Pantheon, he usually kept the scene empty.
The fact is that he had to be rediscovered in mid century by Beatrice Abbott because the casual viewer thought of the work as typical of the photographers that sold tourist photos to wanderers beginning in the 1840s. Their work was bland, clear, and ordinarily a simple record of a piece of architecture or a park. Because their work was quick and cheaply printed it was rarely a deeply saturated image, nor was there any effort to make the image more intense by burning and dodging. But Atget had a sense of drama that eluded the common photographers. He found even the most empty spaces of Paris filled with anticipation and uncertainty.
But the photograph above is unique for its inclusion of a person, a Parisian prostitute who seems to be very patient with Atget, whose tripod and large camera stood before her waiting for the right moment. He may have simply removed the lens cap for an instant, or he may have had a shutter release–which seems likely–and the bored woman before his eyes and his lens expresses nothing other than tolerance. She could hardly imagine that the world would later see her here and contemplate both her uneasy and patient expression and wonder just what might have been going through her mind.
The image itself is stark and impressive. Its date is uncertain, but early in the 1920s, after the first World War, when French society experienced a total upheaval, as Proust reports in his subtle analysis of the Faubourg St. Germain. This image is far removed from the upper class, and the crudeness of the surroundings, old cobblestones and shabby stone walls and cheap shutters all tell us a great deal about the lower depths. Yet the centrality of the figure, the simplicity of the pose and the snapshot-like quality of the photograph almost implies an artistic innocence on the part of Atget. However, the image reveals anything but innocence, especially when one considers the angularity of the leg with its shiny boot dug in, ready for a sudden move. The image has almost no middle tones. It is dominated by deep blacks, stark whites.