THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S COMMENTS
-An Homage to Eugene
Montparnasse, a dirty rundown outlying section of Paris, a photographer rises before dawn. His wife lies sleeping. For breakfast, he has a bowl of crumbled stale bread sprinkled with sugar over which he has poured milk. He has this with his coffee. It is cold and wintry in the fall of 1901. Now fifty, he has been making photographs for only ten years, dedicating himself to photographing Old Paris before it is lost, before the changes sure to come in the new century. For the next twenty years he will continue photographing his beloved city and its environs.
He is interested in preserving a wide range of subjects with his camera, from architectural details of buildings erected several centuries before to common street scenes. His great love is the parks and gardens, some already in decay and neglect. Above his door is a hand-painted sign advertising the wares from which he makes his living: Documents for Artists.
Carrying a heavy eight by ten wooden camera and tripod down from the fifth floor, he places the equipment in a large pushcart and walks all over the city to reach the places he wishes to photograph. On his rounds he meets venders beginning their day or prostitutes ending theirs. He may stop to photograph a storefront. Stylish bowler hats float like surreal clouds in space while a mannequin appears to be looking for its lost head. He finds little known parks, like St. Cloud and Sceaux, an entanglement of vines and overgrown brush. A statue points enigmatically to something hidden among the trees. It begins to rain, only slightly at first, then harder. He continues on. He makes a few more photographs.
On rare days he takes the Metro, as when he photographed the park at Versailles in the spring. That day was cloudy but bright. It was apt that there was not another soul present, for his photographs here were usually devoid of people. Beginning at the palace, he photographed the reflecting pools and giant vases. Early morning fog burned off as he focused his camera on the many statues in the park. Shooting directly into the sun, he set up under a tree to avoid the lens flare that would ruin the picture. By the time afternoon shadows fell, he had exposed his plates for the day. He would catch the train back to Paris. The next morning he would develop and print the previous day's shooting.
Eugene Atget never had a book published or his work exhibited during his lifetime. His photographs might have been lost to us but for Berenice Abbott, an American photographer who was at the time working as an artist's assistant. She discovered and photographed Atget in 1927, a few months before his death.
Times have changed, yet some things remain the same. Atget's influence on my work cannot be denied. Photography stands on the threshold of a digital-imaging technical revolution. Still, I make photographs the old-fashioned way with a large-format wooden field camera, smaller than Atget's but larger than most of my contemporaries. Like Atget, I prefer overcast light, to reveal form, and to provide a neutral gray sky as background. The gardens of Louisiana are farther south than any part of France, but visually there are similarities with the central France of Atget. There is the echo of an earlier aristocracy in both places. Louisiana's gardens in many ways spring from ideas similar to those behind the imperial designs of seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, though on a smaller scale. These places leave me with a sense of discovery. I am interested in photographing the details that give a feel for the whole rather than adopting the more typical angle of view. I have enjoyed wandering through these places of contemplation and personal reflection. I think of others, from the past, who may have done the same in Gethsemane or Giverny. The sense of a presence remains with me and in the photographs. We can be grateful for those who have preserved such places for us to enjoy.
A. J. Meek
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