The man who preserved a bygone Paris

Jack Watkins compares today's city with the one that the photographer Eug¿ne Atget captured
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The Independent Travel

The conundrums surrounding Eugène Atget are unravelling only slowly. He died 75 years ago, but remains photography's man of mystery. The old image of the bent, tramp-like figure with an antique camera held together by string who hawked his pictures at cafés is now discredited. Atget (1856-1927) had a steady career photographing parts of old Paris doomed by the modernisation programme carried out by Haussmann in the second half of the 19th century. But he certainly shunned the limelight.

The conundrums surrounding Eugène Atget are unravelling only slowly. He died 75 years ago, but remains photography's man of mystery. The old image of the bent, tramp-like figure with an antique camera held together by string who hawked his pictures at cafés is now discredited. Atget (1856-1927) had a steady career photographing parts of old Paris doomed by the modernisation programme carried out by Haussmann in the second half of the 19th century. But he certainly shunned the limelight.

When Man Ray published some of Atget's images in 1926, near the end of his life, Atget entreated him not to use his name, saying, "These are simply documents I make". It's one of the few direct quotes we have. The only way to get close to him, I decided, is to seek out the places he photographed and see how much of his Paris survives.

I started at the rue Campagne-Première in Montparnasse. He lived on the fifth floor, in a modest apartment at No 17, with a view from his balcony over the rooftops of north Paris. A notice draws attention to his occupancy between 1898 – it was actually 1899 – and 1927, calling him " le père de la photographie moderne".

A few doors down is the Gaudi-esque block where Man Ray had his studios in the 1920s. He'd later claim to have "discovered" Atget, but it was really his student and girlfriend, Berenice Abbott, who befriended the old man, and later assured his posthumous reputation.

The picture trail begins in the Marais, home of the aristocracy in the 17th century. If a building was at all notable, Atget probably took its picture. Today, the Marais is immaculately preserved, but in Atget's time, it was a slum.

The serenity of the Marais was shattered as I turned a corner to find traffic hurtling alongside the Seine. But to cross the Pont de Sully on the Ile St-Louis is to step into the silence of a church. This was the location for Atget's early-morning shots of empty streets and misty prospects of the river through the limes on Quai d'Anjou. He was as a master of the deserted scene that felt lived-in. Here, the atmosphere remains tangible.

Across Pont St-Louis on the Ile de la Cité, photographers swoop on Notre-Dame like demented pigeons. But Atget avoided the obvious shot. Better to admire the cathedral from the Quai de Montebello on the Left Bank, below building level. Here Atget caught the cathedral soaring like a galleon in the lapping waters of the Seine.

This area on the Left Bank was spared the Haussmann demolitions and so is prime Atget territory: a medieval warren of dark, gloomy alleys. In 1903, Atget clambered on to the roof of the church of St-Séverin, Quasimodo-like, to take pictures among the buttresses and gargoyles. Southward, down rue Lagrange, I reached Place Maubert. Why did Atget photograph here, its fin de siècle buildings the epitome of the uniformity that his work was reacting against? But Atget's Paris is historic as well as visual. Place Maubert was once a notorious den of criminal gangs and the scene of public executions.

Back on the Right Bank at the Tuileries, Atget was commissioned by the Bibliothèque Historique to photograph the gardens. But the endless statuary bored him. He produced carelessly framed work; after a row with the officials, he walked out and never worked for anyone but himself again.

In ruminative old age, Atget produced some of his finest work in two Parisian parks. At Parc de Sceaux he found the perfect spot for a study of decay – and endurance. Once the home of Colbert, Louis XIV's henchman, the château was destroyed in the Revolution. But the fountains and statues, though crumbling, lingered on amid a riot of vegetation that Atget captured beautifully.

Parc de St-Cloud, south-west of the Bois de Boulogne, is more rewarding. The showpiece is the Grand Cascade, a huge fountain decked with figures of classical gods, still stunning in spite of its mouldering, blackened stonework. Atget chose to ignore the frontal view and wandered behind to the terrace at the top to take pictures of sunken steps covered in the fallen leaves and twigs of autumn.

When Atget came here for the last time, in May 1927, aged 70, his motivation was dwindling. The woman he lived with for 40 years, Valentine Compagnon, had recently died, and deeply despondent, he had only three months to live himself. His photos of this period show a penchant for shooting into the sun, creating celestial effects – where his thoughts increasingly focused on his own death?

One of his last pictures was of the Ile de la Cité muffled in fog, the willows on the Square du Vert Gallant like smudges, the spire of the Sainte Chapelle barely visible. A suitable farewell to the city that he knew so intimately.

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