November 22, 2009

Of flesh and money: a skyrocketting price for a nude photography by Atget

by Jeanne Calmont

Many auction sales dedicated to photography took place during the Paris Photo exhibition at the Louvre’s Carousel. One of the most remarkable took place on November the 20th at Sotheby’s in Paris. This auction sale with a turnover of € 1,997,863 was as exceptional as an inauguration exhibition. It was the first auction sale entirely dedicated to photography and organized by the Parisian agency of the English auction dealer. It was also remarkable because of the quoted value of the photographer’s works which were exhibited. Some of them were quite rare and constituted a brand new panorama of photographic creation from the 19th and 20th century.

Next to works by Irving Penn (Mouth, New York, 1966: € 138,750), by Helmut Newton (Sie kommen, 1981: € 150,750), by Becher (Water houses, 1974: € 50,550) by Mapplethorpe (Lisa, Lyon, 1962: €40,350) or by Koudelka (Jerabina, Czechoslovakia: €11,250) among the early printed books of visual modernity, one could find a set of 14 albuminous prints by Eugene Atget (1857-1927).

“Having a grasp of the whole of Paris” that was what the photographer aimed at when he started photographing the old Paris. When Haussmann’s urban renovation project is punctuated by the universal exhibitions and that the neon signs of department shops light up avenues, Atget records a topography and its picturesque aspect that are bound to disappear – alleys, inner yards, narrow winding streets, workshops and kiosks. In 1910 and 1912, similarly, he broadens his inventory work to the Parisian suburb and its inhabitants taking pictures of street pedlars and ragmen. Series such as Fortifications, Parisian Homes and Parisian Horse carts confirm his ambition to give a testimony of sights that will cease to exist very soon as his pure conservatory vision requires doing so. Six photographs which were part of this project went for €7,500 and €75,150. These photographs are the epitome of his works because, on the one hand, they are a testimony of a by-gone age and on the other hand, because by their shape as well as their topic, they illustrate the project of a photographer who also is an indefatigable discoverer.

Atget’s nude photographs are less known because there are fewer of them and they were less exhibited or commented upon. For instance, the photograph of a male nude that was sold for € 60,750 is today the only photograph and the only print that has ever been listed. The man’s face − crossed out on the negative – is not the topic. The real topic of the nudes is the poses models hold. The women from the brothels in the Rue Asselin or in other popular districts of Paris are less taken as paragons of virtue than as formal models. The photographs that were shot in 1921 and between 1925 and 1926 may not be academic but they are efficient and could very well be part of what Atget used to call “instruments for artists” to be sold among flowers and landscapes to Utrillo, Braque and Derain. This was the case for a nude photograph he was ordered by André Dignimont (1891- 1965) painter and illustrator of Farces et Moralités by Octave Mirabeau, of La Muse Gaillarde by Raoul Ponchon and of La Vagabonde by Colette. When one looks at these pleasant and provocative bodies one cannot resist to the pleasure of quoting Colette who said about the relationship between the artist and his silent partner: “When I want to meet you face to face, I bid goodbye to your sweet female cattle, I walk round the corner of an empty house whose faintly blood-blotted shutter knocks on the wall and I meet you leaning over a flowered tailpiece.” The absolutely nude buttocks of lot N° 15 which were estimated round € 30,000 to € 40,000 unleashed wild enthusiasm. Sold for € 444,750 they outreached the previous record of 2007 concerning a photograph by Atget by more than 300,000 Euros. Lot N°16 which went for € 15,000 (under the low estimation) was interesting because it showed the back of a crouching woman a print of whom Man Ray possessed.

No need to say what Atget’s posterity owes to the Surrealists, to Man Ray and his assistant in particular. After having acquired most of Atget’s photographs, albums, catalogues and negatives in 1928 and before selling the funds to the MOMA in 1968 Berenice Abbot largely contributed to the recognition of Atget’s work in the US. If we are to take that for granted, how can we explain that the Avant-garde European movement was so interested in his works in the thirties? While the artists from the Neue Sachlichkeit – New Objectivity movement – see the inauguration of “a new way in looking at the object” in his serial systematic and useful work as Walter Benjamin said in his Short History of Photography 1931, the Surrealists are the only ones not to consider Atget’s work just as some neutral and documentary work. When Man Ray has three of his negatives published in the seventh edition of the Surrealist Revolution (1927), Robert Desnos writes that “Atget’s vision deserves to be qualified as sensitive and modern” and that his mind is to be “likened to that of Le Douanier Rousseau”. Just as these fragments of a reality which is as jarring as “the hazardous combination of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table” (Isidore Ducasse known as Count of Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror 1869) the porches, show windows and elements of architecture that Atget photographed and compiled are, in a similar way, the landmarks of raw imagination. With their mastery of aesthetic archaism in technique – Atget prefers the 14 x18 bellows camera he used when he started photography to the Rolleflex camera he was offered by Man Ray – Atget’s photographs are there to enthrall spectators for long.

NB: Prices include the sales costs

Bibliography: Sylvie AUBENAS, Guillaume Le GALL Eds, Atget, A Retrospective (Catalogue of the exhibition), Paris, BnF, 2007.

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