Friday, February 18, 2011

"Atget is the father of a huge branch of photographers"

The record-setting gelatin silver chloride print "Joueur d'orgue," 1898-99, for which a European collector paid $686,500 at Christie's New York last April

Art & Auction Magazine
By Kris Wilton

Via ARTINFO

The small sign on the door of Eugène Atget’s modest Montparnasse studio read Documents pour Artistes. In the 1890s photography was not considered an artistic medium, nor did Atget think of himself as an artist. Rather, he established himself as a documenter of a Paris that he saw threatened by modernity, and he sold his images — of the city’s streets, buildings, parks, and characters — to "actual" artists to use as aides-mémoires for their own works, as well as to architects and historians. Today, thanks to the championing of the American photographer Berenice Abbott, Atget has risen in status to forebear of modern photography, with influence and auction results to match.


"Atget is the father of a huge branch of photographers," says Matthieu Humery, specialist and head of sale for photographs at Christie’s New York, where last April the photographer’s proto-Surreal "Joueur d’orgue," 1898-99, earned an artist record $686,500. "When you look at his work and then the work of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Brassaï, William Eggleston — you can see the link."

By the time he turned to photography, Atget had lived many lives, although we have scant information about them. Born in 1857 and orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by an uncle in the port city of Bordeaux, where he became a sailor. Atget made his way to Paris, surviving for a while as an actor by taking bit parts with second-tier repertory and touring companies. "As he had rather hard features, he was given unflattering roles," his theater friend André Calmettes wrote in a letter to Abbott in 1927. Eventually even these dwindled, and Atget was forced to seek a new way to support himself and his companion, the actress Valentine Delafosse.

After a brief foray into painting, Atget turned to photography, hoping to create a font of images, Calmettes writes, "of all that both in Paris and its surroundings was artistic and picturesque." He invested in the necessary equipment and plates and diligently hit the streets each day at dawn with his 18-by-24-centimeter view camera, gradually building a client base. But it wasn’t until 1925 that Abbott discovered Atget’s photographs through Man Ray, who had published several (uncredited) in the journal "La révolution surréaliste," and recognized the work as art for the first time. "The subjects were not sensational but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity," she wrote in her 1964 book "The World of Atget." "The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise, was mirrored in each print." Abbott began visiting Atget regularly, buying as many prints as she could afford.


In 1927, Abbott asked Atget, then a widower, whom she described as "tired, sad, remote, appealing," to sit for a portrait. When she went to show him the prints, she learned that he had died, at the age of 70. Fearing that his work would be lost, she tracked down Calmettes, his de facto executor, and arranged to purchase about half of the thousands of prints and plates that remained. Later she brought on the New York dealer Julien Levy as a partner, and together they promoted Atget in the United States — Abbott, through articles and by showing the prints to friends, including Walker Evans; Levy, through exhibitions. In 1968, Abbott sold her trove of more than 5,000 prints to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $50,000. To this day, most of the photographer’s works in U.S. collections can be traced to Abbott.


+ Atget originally sold his prints for pennies, gradually increasing his prices over the years. Berenice Abbott wrote that they ranged during his career from 0.25 to 13 francs.



+ In the 1920s, Man Ray offered to print Atget's images on modern paper to achieve clearler tones, but Atget refused, preferring his more antiquated methods.


+ In the last decades of his life, Atget subsisted on an unusual diet, composed primarily of bread and milk, that is thought to have contributed to his death. "He had very personal ideas on everything, which he imposed with extraordinary violence," wrote his friend André Calmettes.


+Abbott modeled her careerlong photographic project to document a rapidly changing New York City on Atget's work.


It is estimated that Atget produced as many as 8,500 images during his 35-year career. Given their vast numbers, it’s not surprising that they vary considerably in quality and desirability. "He took lots of photographs of door knockers and ornamental ironwork, and not all of that rewards a second viewing," says Christopher Philips, who curated "Atget, Archivist of Paris" at the International Center for Photography, in New York, last year. "But maybe 15 percent of this enormous output does seem to have remarkable lyrical and poetic quality, and that’s really what explains the long-term interest in Atget."

After a brief foray into painting, Atget turned to photography, hoping to create a font of images, Calmettes writes, "of all that both in Paris and its surroundings was artistic and picturesque." He invested in the necessary equipment and plates and diligently hit the streets each day at dawn with his 18-by-24-centimeter view camera, gradually building a client base. But it wasn’t until 1925 that Abbott discovered Atget’s photographs through Man Ray, who had published several (uncredited) in the journal "La révolution surréaliste," and recognized the work as art for the first time. "The subjects were not sensational but nevertheless shocking in their very familiarity," she wrote in her 1964 book "The World of Atget." "The real world, seen with wonderment and surprise, was mirrored in each print." Abbott began visiting Atget regularly, buying as many prints as she could afford.


In 1927, Abbott asked Atget, then a widower, whom she described as "tired, sad, remote, appealing," to sit for a portrait. When she went to show him the prints, she learned that he had died, at the age of 70. Fearing that his work would be lost, she tracked down Calmettes, his de facto executor, and arranged to purchase about half of the thousands of prints and plates that remained. Later she brought on the New York dealer Julien Levy as a partner, and together they promoted Atget in the United States — Abbott, through articles and by showing the prints to friends, including Walker Evans; Levy, through exhibitions. In 1968, Abbott sold her trove of more than 5,000 prints to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $50,000. To this day, most of the photographer’s works in U.S. collections can be traced to Abbott.

It is estimated that Atget produced as many as 8,500 images during his 35-year career. Given their vast numbers, it’s not surprising that they vary considerably in quality and desirability. "He took lots of photographs of door knockers and ornamental ironwork, and not all of that rewards a second viewing," says Christopher Philips, who curated "Atget, Archivist of Paris" at the International Center for Photography, in New York, last year. "But maybe 15 percent of this enormous output does seem to have remarkable lyrical and poetic quality, and that’s really what explains the long-term interest in Atget."

According to the New York dealer Edwynn Houk, who mounted his first Atget show in 1981, the typical collector is "someone who’s pretty sophisticated and certainly has an informed eye." Connoisseurship is key because Atget used three print techniques with mixed results. Generally, says Boston dealer Robert Klein, "the arrowroot prints are more valuable than the silver-chloride prints, and the silver-chloride prints are maybe more valuable than the albumen prints, depending on the condition."


Although Atgets regularly appear on the auction block, prices like those fetched by "Joueur d’orgue" last April and by the previous record holder — "Femme," a 1925 arrowroot print that earned €444,750 ($663,000), more than 10 times its high estimate at Sotheby’s Paris in November 2009 — are not the norm, resulting from the convergence of top print quality and desirable subject matter. "Femme," points out Simone Klein, head of photographs for Sotheby’s Europe, is from one of the artist’s smallest and most sought-after series, of prostitutes; is one of only two known prints; and had spent the past 80 years safely tucked in a book. "Joueur d’orgue’s" depiction of a dour blind organ grinder alongside a radiant singer captures a fleeting incongruity that appealed to Surrealists like Tristan Tzara, who commissioned the well-preserved print.

Those auction high-water marks also owe much to MoMA, whose former photography department head, John Szarkowski, brought Atget to the public’s attention in four exhibitions, accompanied by catalogues, mounted between 1981 and 1985. The museum also played a role in the last major spike in his market, in the early 2000s, when, to benefit its acquisitions fund, it deaccessioned duplicates in its Atget collection, beginning with 225 prints at Sotheby’s New York in 2001, which made a total of $4 million, and then by offering 1,000 more through an impartial middleman, the Upper East Side dealer David Tunick, well known for his trade in Old Master prints. Tunick examined the works and, with the museum’s approval, assigned each to a price category ranging from $3,000 to $150,000, based on subject, condition, and rarity.

"It was a feeding frenzy," says Tunick. "Scores, if not hundreds [of buyers] wanted a piece of the history of photography, wanted something by this great photography artist and documentarian." And, notes the New York dealer Charles Isaacs, "once MoMA opened its vault and people realized how few of the really great things there were, the top of the market was reinforced."

Indeed, the years since have seen six auction records for the artist. Only three of these, however, topped $200,000, and the bulk of sales have been for less than $100,000. Moreover, cautions Houk, "it’s strictly in the auction market that Atgets have gone that high. The gallery prices have remained the same." Here the spread is even wider, from $1,500 to $250,000. Within Atget’s much-published Saint-Cloud series, for example, Hans P. Kraus, of New York, says he has "some very nice studies" priced between $25,000 and $60,000, while Isaacs is offering the 1924 arrowroot print "Saint-Cloud, fin août," 6 1/2h. for $175,000.

The heftier prices, says dealer Klein, tend to go to "pictures that approach Surrealism or nudity or the forbidden," such as the uncanny images of shop windows or statues in Versailles and Saint-Cloud, the frank nudes of prostitutes, and the sweeping views of Paris. On the lower end are the architectural studies. "You can find very beautiful Atget images for $10,000," says Simone Klein, of Sotheby’s, who believes that abstract details of trees and blossoms are particularly undervalued, at between $10,000 and $25,000. The German gallery Kicken Berlin is seeing interest in these images from collectors of modernist and New Vision photography.

Klein, who expects to have some Atgets in the May sale at Sotheby’s London, sees room for growth in his market, particularly as owners of his works see how his images perform at auction. "There are some very high prices, and then there’s nothing, and then there are very low prices," she says. "I think this middle range will be filled in the next couple of years. I think there are a few surprises left."