by Claire Aasen ’14.
In considering what constitutes surrealism, I found all of Atget’s photographs compelling; it is interesting to me that Atget himself did not consider his work “surrealist.” He saw himself as a maker of documents, and it was other, more assuredly surrealist artists like Man Ray who first applied the term to his images. It was the photograph Cour, 28 Rue Bonaparte, Paris that struck me in particular. I lingered on the image as I struggled to remember the English translation of librarie (it means “bookstore,” not “library”). But after longer looking, I realized there was more about the photograph that unsettled me; the sense of strained recollection applied not just to the French word I used to know, but to the whole image.
With its clear levels and sign overhead, the space seems almost like a theater set, and the way the stairs lead into shadow compounds this impression—one imagines the dark doorway in the lower corner could lead just as easily to a hushed but bustling backstage as to the door of an abandoned office or shop. This idea of photographing what has been abandoned is itself interesting; it seems different from photographing what is merely unseen. Unknown and once-known are different concepts, and there is something particularly uncanny about space that looks to have been deserted: an almost nagging quality that the concepts of undiscovered space—the “New World,” the “Frontier”—do not elicit. It can feel strange to consider space we could, but do not, inhabit; we are forced to remember that we ourselves are always present as we see and catalogue the world. A photograph like this reminds us of what exists outside of our consideration. In focusing on spaces we have cast aside, Atget shows us where we are not.
Eugène Atget (French, 1857–1927)
Cour, 28 Rue Bonaparte, Paris, 1910
gelatin silver print
Museum Purchase 1986.52