The work of Eugène Atget is one of the richest pictorial embodiments of French culture. Poised between venerable tradition and modernist experiment, Atget's achievement brilliantly expresses the passage from the world of Balzac to the world of Proust, from Baudelaire to Breton, from Corot to Cézanne.
Atget worked as a photographer, mainly in and near Paris, from the late 1890s until his death, and made a total of about 10,000 individual images. Nominally, he was a purveyor of pictorial documents for historians, craftsmen, painters, and illustrators--a role that fostered the extraordinary breadth of his work. But Atget's approach to his profession was unique and highly innovative. Photography's turn-of-the-century aesthetic movement had equated art with the suppression of fact. Atget overturned that aesthetic. Over the course of his long career he discovered and progressively mastered photography's capacity to transform plain fact into visual poetry. The intelligence and imagination that informs all of Atget's mature imagery is especially evident in variant views of a single motif, which beautifully demonstrate photography's subtle flexibility.
In the rapid unfolding of modernist photography in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Atget's work soon became the exemplar of the medium's new creative power-- the single most vital force that propelled photography from its documentary past into its artistic future. No major photographer in the half-century following his death was untouched by Atget's influence. Historians rank him among photography's most distinguished masters, and many would claim that his artistic accomplishment has yet to be surpassed.
At Atget's death in 1927, the French government purchased 2,000 negatives. The remaining contents of his studio--1,300 negatives, 5,000 prints of individual images, plus multiple prints--were purchased by the photographer Berenice Abbott and the art dealer Julien Levy. They in turn sold the collection in 1968 to The Museum of Modern Art. Although the leading French archives are comparable in scale, the Abbott-Levy Collection is distinguished by its richness in Atget's work after 1920, when he made a substantial portion of his best work.