Eugene Atget’s apartment and studio was located at 17 bis Rue Campagne-Première (“bis” indicates a “half” address). Not a lot is known about Atget, since he largely did not become popular until after his death. We do know he was born in Libourne, near Bordeaux, in 1857. First, he was a sailor, then became an actor (with very little success). At age 40, he quit acting, then briefly tried his hand at painting, and finally settled into photography. For the next 30 years until his death in 1927, he photographed all over Paris with his large format view camera. Although he took photographs, he didn’t see himself as a photographer, and made money by selling his photographs to other artists to paint.
Often, he awoke early in order to catch the soft or diffused light that dawn provided. This led to his photographs creating a sense of an “empty” Paris, an idea which has lasted through time, with many other representations of Paris also creating the illusion of an empty city. He was focused on documenting the city— there was no experimentation in his work.
Surrealists wanted to adopt him into their group, as they often thought of some of his photos as surrealist, but he rejected the notion. One of Atget’s images was used for the cover of a surrealist magazine, La Revolution Surréaliste, but he asked that they omit his name in the use.
The Chicago Tribune described his work before a show of his work and Berenice Abott’s in 1991: “Atget used the reflective surfaces of store windows and the lost horizons of crumbling stone alleyways to convey a sense of a Paris that was slowly fading into memory. Shop displays of shirts and shoes, hats or corsets all but speak as a symbolic populace of Paris” (Foerstner).
If it hadn’t been for Berenice Abbott, we likely wouldn’t know his name or his work today. Abbott moved to Paris in 1921 as a sculptor, but in 1923 she took a job working as Man Ray’s studio assistant and learned the art of photography. In 1925, she saw Atget’s work for the first time; it is said that in seeing his work, she knew she wanted to be a photographer herself. She took <a href="https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/eugène-atget?all/all/all/all/0">one of the only known portraits</a> of Atget as an adult in 1927, and when she went to show him the result, she discovered of his death. From that moment on, she worked tirelessly to preserve and catalogue his work, which consisted of over “1,500 glass plate negatives and 8,000 prints, which she brought back with her to New York in 1929” (Foerstner). In doing this, she single-handedly saved his work. His archive then went to the Musem of Modern Art in New York City in 1968. She once said “it took two lives, ‘his and mine’ to garner Atget’s now-secure place in the history of photography” (Foerstner).
Atget’s extensive and comprehensive photography of Paris has inspired others to revisit it. Christopher Rauschenberg, son of Robert Rauschenberg the American painter, took up a project to revisit Atget nearly 100 years after many of Atget’s photographs were taken. This project can be viewed <a href="http://www.christopherrauschenberg.com/atget.html">on his website</a>. After speaking with Rauschenberg and learning about Eugene Atget, we also worked to recreate Atget, nearly 20 years after Rauschenberg. It was interesting to see the difference 100, and then 20, years can make. This project can be viewed <a href="https://wluparis.omeka.wlu.edu/tours/show/7">here</a>.
Other famous residents of Rue Campagne-Première included Man Ray at number 31, a fellow photographer and client of Atget’s. Yves Klein’s studio was located at number 14. Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Picabia, and Kiki de Montparnasse also resided on the street.
During the interwar period, the streets surrounding the intersection of the boulevard du Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail marked the center of avant-garde Europe. Man Ray, the renowned photographer, was there to document it all. Within a year of his arrival, he was invited to be Gertrude Stein's official portraitist, and also photographed Pablo Picasso and Peggy Guggenheim, made films with the Dadaists, and played chess with Marcel Duchamp and wandered his way through the hub of artistic activity that was Montparnasse in the interwar period.
Man Ray rented a ground-floor studio in a block of artists’ flats at 31 bis rue Campagne-Première, in the heart of Montparnasse. There he became a central figure in the cultural scene of that cosmopolitan district of artists and expatriates. His studio was close by the studios of other fellow artists and also close to the Jockey nightclub where Man Ray’s famous muse and lover, Kiki de Montparnasse, preformed.
Man Ray’s ground-floor living and work space, which doubled as his portrait studio became a center of artistic activity. Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains the artistic hub that Man Ray’s apartment served as:
“This studio has sometimes been called a school, but it was nothing like a proper school…. Like many successful photographers, Man Ray simply needed help with his equipment and with developing film and finishing prints, and within a year of arriving he had found young people to help him. Four of them went on to become famous photographers in their own right: Berenice Abbott, an American who had studied sculpture in Paris and Berlin and was struggling to survive; Jacques-André Boiffard, a French medical student who became a Surrealist and lived for long periods in Man Ray’s studio; Bill Brandt, a German who put in some time before leaving to live in London; and Lee Miller, a beautiful young American who posed for portraits and fashion shoots, and who became Man Ray’s collaborator in films and photography, as well as his lover.”
Man Ray taught his followers to focus on the vision rather than the technique or technology. His apprentice Bernice Abbot turned him on the the documentary photographic work of fellow Rue Campagne-Premièrian Eugene Atget. Man Ray absolutely fell in love with Atget's work. Man Ray bought many of his prints himself as they served as inspiration for some of his work. He also introduced Atget's works with his friends, including an American friend Julien Levy, who later founded the Julien Levy Gallery, in New York. After Atget’s death, his life’s work was acquired by Abbott, in association with Levy, and published in the monograph Atget: Photographe de Paris, in 1930 and today exists in collection of The Museum of Modern Art. Man Ray’s studio was a hub of artistic activity and appreciation that drew artists together.