John Szarkowski’s Atget was recommended, or, rather, referenced in Geoff Dyer’s The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, if I recall, as the model on which Dyer based his 100-comments-about-100-pictures arrangement of that book. It’s quite similar to Szarkowski’s classic Looking at Photographs, which I picked up cheap at a Half Price Books years ago, but still haven’t worked all the way through, and shame on me.

In brief, Atget is Szarkowski’s pick of 100 images from MOMA’s Atget collection, paired with essays that speak around the photographs and Atget’s life. It had me laughing and looking closely, and I wholeheartedly recommend you get one through interlibrary loan or something, if you have any interest at all in writing about photography (or writing in general).

But allow me to go on a bit…

Szarkowski was deep into his tenure as MoMA’s Director of Photography when he and Maria Hamburg put out the four volume collection The Work of Atget, which is the definitive work on Atget’s life and photography if you’re looking for something like that.

This is not one of those books, and you’re not likely to see a review of them here. Apologies.

Anyway.

Some years after he left MoMA, Szarkowski put together this book, Atget, and, in form, it follows his 1973 Looking at Photographs, as mentioned above. This time, it’s all photographs from Atget, Sarkowski’s 100 favorites, or, more likely, the hundred he felt like writing about. The first edition appeared in 2000 and this is a water- and sun-damaged copy of the 2012 reprint… So if you go looking for one, note that I didn’t pay the rather outrageous sums various booksellers ask for it at these days.

I suppose it’s no wonder that the prices are high. It’s a great book, really. Szarkowski was at the height of his powers, and Atget was no slouch either. The pictures are, well, fairly ordinary, if you more or less grew up with Szarkowski’s eye running the Art Photography show. Sure, they’re mostly commercial work, albeit with an increasing level of what we might call artistry. To be honest, I kept looking for something special, something that would answer the why of this book, but I think the main reason for Szarkowski’s Atget was to flex his writing muscles.

And writing muscles he had. The language is smart (and smart aleck), sophisticated (and snarky), and as a reader you’re mostly along for the ride. It’s a good time, all in all, and I can see why he became the taste-maker for Art Photography in the latter half of the 20th Century. I mean, he gave us the New Documents show that largely introduced Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand—and the sorts of photographs they made—to the world. I mean, come on.

But at times it was all just a bit too cute. Or maybe he sounds just a bit too convinced of his own ability and credibility. He should be, of course. He was writing in the late 1990s, after nearly 30 years at MoMA, after the omnibus Atget collection and numerous other books, long after Looking at Photographs and The Photographer’s Eye. He had the cred. He had the skill. His eye was the eye.

And I learned a few things, I guess. Atget was an actor for a bit in the late 1800s, before he turned to photography. He got serious about making pictures about the time dry plates appeared and spent most of his photographic career photographing things for painters to use as models, or for historical societies to document buildings and motifs of the past. (Before then, with the wet plate process, you could only photograph within a few yards of a darkroom (or tent or whatever) where you could coat the plate and quickly run to make the exposure before the emulsion dried, then quickly run back to develop it. With dryplate, you could carry however many plates you wanted, expose when you wanted, develop when you wanted. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as film, but it was much closer than wet plate.) He used some sort of a convertible lens, almost like a zoom, but with different bits of glass and metal that screwed together to make different focal lengths.

Had I paid better attention maybe I would’ve learned some more, but I was just too entranced by Szarkowski’s writing… If only I had paid enough attention to pick up some tips…

Really, I’m of two minds about this book. Can’t you tell? On the one hand, it’s probably the best thing in the photography arena that I’ve read. On the other, well, it reads like Szarkowski knew it would be the best thing I’d read in the photography arena. He was a master of the form and the guy for a long time, and maybe I’m jealous or something.

Unrated.

Anyway. As mentioned above, I wholeheartedly recommend you find a copy of Atget via interlibrary loan. Prices on the used market are silly… well, not as silly as they were when I bought my beat-up, water damaged copy, but still. If you’re really interested in writing about photography, you could do worse. (Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs is nearly as good, and 1/4 or 1/3rd the price, though Atget is a sustained meditation, where Looking at Photographs is a hundred different glimpses, and Szarkowski really couldn’t stretch out like he did with Atget. It was also much earlier in his career, nearly 30 years earlier, and he maybe didn’t have the ability to stretch out in the same way back then.)

One thing Atget makes clear, that maybe Looking at Photographs didn’t, or not in the same way, is that pictures, looking at them, brings up all kinds of things in the mind: history, nostalgia, emotion, philosophy, whatever. Sure, there’s whatever is pictured, a tree or building or whatever. But then there’s whatever those things in the picture recall to the mind. A picture of my smiling grandmother recalls the smell of her SoS (creamed chipped beef on toast) or the hint of bacon grease in Granny’s cobbler. A picture of a narrow alley in Paris in the 1920s recalls, for me, the few times I visited Paris, near enough to 100 years after Atget made his pictures, my step dad screaming at me on the street, getting a crepe with butter and honey and a cafe au lait from a cart on the street, hopping on the Metro from the wrong platform and riding the train in a big loop around Paris, through some of the more hood-looking places I’ve ever been, and I lived in old East Dallas for awhile just before the gentrification really took off.

In writing about pictures, or even thinking about pictures, you bring all that in, and you should, and it’s right and proper.

And Szarkowski was a master of it.

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  1. “The pictures are, well, fairly ordinary.” That is the beauty of Atget. No fancy tricks, nothing clever. But holy shit! The guy was a seer, literally. This book is a long-time favorite and I’m glad you reviewed it.

    1. I need to spend more time looking at Atget’s pictures and trying to ignore Szarkowski’s excellent prose. I probably need to find a different Atget book, an exhibition catalog or survey or something like that. This particular book seems to me to be far more about Szarkowski than Atget, but that likely says more about me than either Atget or Szarkowski.

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