Uni student studying English Literature and French – loves reading, writing and exploring Sydney's diverse offerings, old and new.
What appears, at first glance, to be an empty streetscape slowly comes alive. And the longer you look, the more you'll see.
This is the magic which imbues much of Eugène Atget's photography. Spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 200 rare and original prints are being exhibited for the first time in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Though his work became highly influential in artistic circles, particularly among the Surrealists, Atget never saw himself as an artist. In fact, he was not even fully trained as a photographer, but began his career selling photographs of Parisian landscapes as studies for painters, illustrators and set designers.
While they may not be classified as 'art', to characterise Atget's photographs as a form of 'documentation' somehow fails to convey their evocative nature and striking depth. His subject was Old Paris – the parts of the city saved from Baron Haussmann's drastic demolition programs in the 1850s, which would make way for boulevards, parks and the metro. Rather than focus on the grandeur of the Belle Époque, Atget photographed lesser known areas – those forgotten streets, alleys, squares and facades of a Paris of yesterday.
Atget's photographs are not simply snapshots of old buildings; they capture the old light of the city itself. This soft glow, preserved within warm sepia and purple-brown tones, is just one element which lends the almost eerily deserted urban landscapes a particular humanness or living quality. Atget's use of framing frequently draws the eye into the distance, around a corner or through a doorway, views that are tantalisingly out of reach. What we do see, however, is incredibly detailed.
The tangibility of textures, from peeling paint and aging stone, to cracked wood and shining cobblestones is accompanied by occasional glimpses of faint, wraithlike figures – people moving too fast to have been captured by the long exposure of Atget's camera. Though the sheer number of prints can seem overwhelming, it is well worth taking your time in front of each. The longer you spend, the more the details emerge – the decorative patterns carved into a doorknocker, the motif appearance of a ladder, a reflection of Atget's camera in a window, or ghostly faces staring back at you through the glass.
The exhibition runs until the 4th of November, with tickets starting at only $7. There are even prizes to be won in an Instagram competition of Atget-inspired images of Sydney. Whether you're a photography aficionado or not, the magic nostalgia of the "Old Paris" show is bound to linger on well after you leave.