Avenue des Gobelins

Eugène Atget provided a wonderful collection of storefront photographs throughout the time he spent photographing the changing landscape of Paris. His photographs taken on Avenue des Gobelins specifically do an excellent job of both historically documenting and artistically symbolizing the changes going on in Parisian retail culture throughout the 19th and 20th century, yet his documentation did not stop there. His images of storefronts expanded beyond this avenue, further providing a greater repository of the ever-changing culture.

Eugène Atget’s storefront photography is an essential element to the investigation of the evolution of culture in Paris, specifically regarding retail, after Haussmannization, throughout the Belle Époque period, and onwards. Atget’s photographs of window displays contain valuable historic information about this evolution as well as artistic symbolism. His storefront photography specifically on Avenue des Gobelins is no exception to this claim. In fact, whether it was intentional or not, Atget provided us with a great historical source of information for not only this Avenue, but also several others with his documentation of select storefronts. His photography of the storefronts suggests what the culture of Parisian retail was like during a changing time, specifically after Haussmannization and the time before and after World War I. This can be seen not only in the obvious contents of his photographs, that is to say, what is clearly being pictured, but also within the nuances of the photography, such as the reflection captured in the store windows. Atget, living a very mysterious and closed off life, was known for his straight shooting style of documentary photography. As discussed above, one of the many themes throughout his expansive repository of photographs of Paris is the window displays of different shops throughout the city. Avenue des Gobelins is a great place to start investigating his window photography as a means of not only documentation but also artistic symbolism, and expanding outward to the other storefronts that he photographed on different streets, we are able to conclude that Atget’s images were a way for him to remember the Paris that he knew as it was changing around him (Fuller 135,137). In general, after the Haussmannization of Paris in the middle to late 19th century, the city saw a rise in Flâneurie, the practice of strolling, partially as a result of the widened streets that encouraged this, but also because of a feeling of estrangement that this change created among many of the residents of Paris. Upon looking at Atget’s photographs, the viewer might perceive that he also felt this way with his extensive documentation of “Old Paris”. By looking at his large collection of photographs that he took throughout the years, especially those of window displays, it becomes clear to the viewer that he was essentially acting as a flâneur, walking up and down the streets “window shopping”. Additionally, by not including people in his pictures, the viewer gets the opportunity to experience Paris as if they were the flâneur themselves (Forgione 664). The photograph “Avenue des Goblins”, taken in 1925, named after the location it was photographed in, illustrates these points well. The reflection of the buildings and trees overlaying the male mannequins adorned in suits and hats intermix the world of reality and fiction. The Gobelins Factory, which is the building reflected onto the scene, represents a piece of history, with parts of the building dating back to the seventeenth century (Borcoman 120). This factory, combined with the inclusion of the museum built in 1914 in the reflection, symbolize an interesting interweaving of buildings, old and new, as well as the modern fashion of the time on display in the window. The suits on display within the window suggest something about the retail culture at the time. They imply a higher end market, as suits are typically considered an item of luxury. Additionally, by the way they are displayed in the window, with price tags clearly assigning a fixed price for each item, we as the viewer are able to get a sense of the pertinence of not only window shopping along streets at this time, as the culture moved away from covered passages, but also the idea of fixed prices, which were not always the way in which the price of items were decided in the retail market. As the majority of Atget’s window display photographs were taken after 1910, there is a common theme of posted prices for the items within the displays such as “Children's clothing store window, Avenue des Gobelins”, “Storefront, Avenue des Gobelins”, and, “Avenue des Goblins”. This shows the change of retail culture throughout time, as most retail stores adopted this policy within the 19th century. Before this, bargaining was the main way of deciding price, but as the retail culture in Paris developed from the 19th century onwards, shopkeepers began moving away from bargaining with each customer over the price, to setting a uniform price for each product. This in turn allowed things like returns to happen (Miller 24). Additionally, it became more appropriate to enter stores without the intent to actually purchase anything, something that was previously never done (Williams 67). Because of this, the photograph creates a scene that symbolically and literally illustrates the transformation of Paris with regard to time. Atget’s timing of his photography, especially that of storefronts, is significant in its own right. Leading up to World War I, Atget seemed intent on photographing the streets, shops, and architecture of what was left of the “Old Paris”. Of his storefront photography, among the most notable pieces taken during this time are “Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris” and “Boulevard de Strasbourg”, both taken around 1910. Interestingly, Atget was included in La Révolution Suréaliste for his piece of the corsets. The subtle rotation of the corset hanging outside the window is a common theme within many photographs considered to be under the surrealist realm, yet this photograph's main claim to surrealism was his desire to capture a disappearing and changing Paris. Atget was seen as an "urban primitive," as he seemed to impulsively capture a rapidly changing Paris all the while paying homage to its original roots ("Photography and Surrealism"). The empty street with mannequins in corsets, some showing movement and some standing as still as a statue, provide a romantic, dream-like quality about the city that the surrealists appreciated for its ability to not only evoke memories but also its mix of reality and fiction ("Photography and Surrealism"). With the onset of World War I, Atget seemed to work less on his photography during this time, picking it back up around 1920. During that year he wrote to Paul Léon and claimed that his, “artistic and documentary collection” of Paris was complete, and offered to sell a portion of his negatives. He was even quoted saying, “I can say that I possess all of Old Paris,” (Szarkowski). This marks somewhat of a turn in Atget’s career, as he seems to have turned the page with the intentions of his photography. This is the time when many of his storefront photographs were produced (Szarkowski). One of the most noticeable differences between his storefront photographs pre-World War I and post-World War I is the use of reflection. Though there is a hint of reflection in the windows in “Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris” and “Boulevard de Strasbourg”, Atget seems to really exaggerate this characteristic in his newer photographs such as “Avenue des Goblins” and “Storefront, Avenue des Gobelins”. This difference could suggest that Atget was wishing to artistically symbolize the “reflections” of “Old Paris” within his photographs of a newer Paris. Specifically regarding the photographs taken on Avenue des Gobelins, he emphasizes the reflection of the Gobelins Factory in the store windows, which represents a piece of “Old Paris”, as parts of the building date back to the seventeenth century (Borcoman 120). It is important to note that these claims are not restricted to Atget’s photographs on Avenue des Gobelins. He uses the artistic element of reflection in many of his storefront images taken after 1920 such as those also taken of Le Bon Marché storefront windows. In the end, by exploring several of his storefront photographs, we are able to get an overarching sense of how Paris was changing throughout time, an invaluable gift provided to us by Eugène Atget. Upon visiting Avenue des Gobelins in person, we are able to get a feel for what the area is like in the present day. Though there are several retail shops sporadically placed along the street, the actual amount was underwhelming considering how Atget connected retail to this space, it certainly is not a hub for clothing. The Gobelins Factory still stands and is well preserved, which is a nice permanent piece of history that we are able to observe not only in Atget's photographs but also in the present day. Additionally, it serves as a nice landmark, allowing the viewer to find the storefront that Atget was photographing when he included the reflection of the factory within the window. Today, the store is a Fran Prix, which suggest something about how the avenue has taken a more practical turn, serving the needs of the residential area that surrounds it. All in all, Atget's photographs of Avenue des Gobelins provide a very nice resource to observe the changes and continuities of the area today.