at the Kelmscott Gallery

I suppose everyone has a catalog of memorable scenes: the way a childhood home looked on coming home from school, or the site of a memorable kiss, or a favorite view on the walk to work. You bring such scenes to mind at will; if you have photographs of them, you do not tire of looking at them. The image returns you to a time and place, and to a memory that is always more than an image.

That is how I think of Eugene Atget photographing the streets of Paris, except that Atget tried to capture the look of an entire city. He photographed Paris for almost 30 years, from the end of the 19th century to his death in 1927. Atget made a living selling prints to artists, theater designers, and others who sought detailed images of specific places. Now an exhibit running through January 18 at the Kelmscott Gallery showcases a selection of his prints, as well as photographs by Berenice Abbott, an admirer of Atget’s who documented New York as the Parisian had his own rapidly changing city. Abbott–who died in Maine last week at age 93–printed almost all the Atget works on display here.

Atget roamed his city with a view camera, exposing cumbersome glass-plate negatives. Not only was his technology of the 19th century, his views tend to be small, intimate, and timeless. He was not interested in sweeping skylines, in the Eiffel Tower, in the hum of busy boulevards. Among the subjects in this exhibit are an open-air bookstall, a corset shop, a newsstand, a vegetable shop, a bar. Atget shows us one item at a time, and we see these places as a pedestrian might–straight ahead, at eye level.

One print is of a beautiful bar. Bright daylight diffuses beyond the edges of a window and illuminates the gleaming wood, the bottles and glasses neatly ordered before a mirror that reflects more light into the room. It is a scene of architectural precision. I could look at it for a long time, drinking in the crisp detail, but could not imagine dirtying a glass there. Atget’s perfect view lacks all signs of the life–customers ordering drinks, a bartender wiping the counter–that give this place its real meaning.

Very few of these photographs show any people, and the Parisians who do show up tend to know that they’re being photographed (no surprise, given Atget’s large tripod-mounted camera). The only truly candid shot is of a sidewalk crowd watching an eclipse through smoked-glass viewers. They look out of the frame at something we cannot see. We can guess what they’re doing, but they still look goofy. This is the sort of absurd view of modern life that might have been snapped by any number of more recent street photographers (it was on the cover of a French surrealist periodical in 1926).

Among the other images, one of those most full of life contains no actual people, just painted carnival ads for the Giant Armand and the Smallest Man in the World. Atget shows us Paris as physical object. Each photograph memorializes a particular shop, a restaurant, a narrow street. When Atget photographed a newsstand, a breeze stirred the front page of a newspaper whose headline is itself a poignant reminder of time passing; but this image is an exception. Usually the only signs of time passing are the stained rocks of ancient walls (and the knowledge that much of what Atget photographed were buildings and streets that have since been demolished). Each photograph records a very specific place, and one senses that Atget tried to capture through sheer accumulation (he exposed over 8,000 negatives) just about all of old Paris.

During the last years of his life, one of Atget’s neighbors was the Dada painter and photographer Man Ray, whose assistant was a young American named Berenice Abbott. In 1927 she asked to photograph Atget (the portrait is displayed in this exhibit), but by the time she was ready to show him the proofs the old man had died. Abbott, who was deeply impressed by Atget’s work, bought his enormous collection of prints and negatives. Atget had labored in relative obscurity, known mainly to those who bought his views for practical purposes. Abbott was responsible for creating his reputation as more than a commercial photographer. Over the course of the next few decades she printed many of his negatives, promoted them, and eventually saw the publication of some of the photographs in book form.

When Abbott moved to New York in 1929, she brought some of the Frenchman’s sensibility with her. Abbott was mesmerized by the pace of change in New York, and began photographing street scenes when she wasn’t engaged in the portraiture that was her bread and butter. In 1935 she was awarded a Federal Arts Project grant that supported her city photography for the next four years. Changing New York, published in 1939, was the result of that project, and most of the photographs displayed here were first reproduced there.

Some of Abbott’s views of shop windows seem to pick up right where Atget left off. Several of the prints show the same meticulous attention to detail he displayed, such as her Jacob Heymann Butcher Shop, whose windows and door are entirely filled with signs advertising prices. Her Designer’s Window, Bleeker Street is directly descended from his late series of shop windows cum reflections, but it shows a preoccupation with form beyond Atget’s, at least in this exhibit. A white stag hangs suspended in a dark window that reflects a neon sign and the buildings across the street. Bright and dark areas are beautifully balanced; what looks at first glance like a snapshot is in fact a careful composition.

If you strip away the detail and look only at major structural elements, some of Abbott’s photographs could be abstract paintings. In her view of a gas station, the round tops of three pumps echo the huge oval Esso sign on the background wall; a light post juts up and across. Paul Klee could have created this composition.

Way over in the left corner, beyond the pumps, a mechanic stoops at work. Abbott often shows people caught unposed, working or walking. In Macdougal Street the viewer’s attention focuses on a gallery of shop signs projecting onto the sidewalk, and on the fire escapes above. In the background, though–where the viewer’s eye is drawn by perspective–are several pedestrians and a dog, seemingly caught unawares. It’s clear that people live and work on these streets.

It’s clear, too, that these streets change with time. In two prints, modern high rises sweep upward behind older street-level statues of early New Yorkers. To capture the skyscrapers Abbott aimed her camera upward, isolating statue and building from the rest of the street scene. The juxtaposition of the buildings’ cool, smooth vertical lines with the wrinkled stone of the statues shows Abbott’s concern for form, for the way different surfaces and textures react to light. The juxtaposition also places the photographs in time; these are not pictures of statues or skyscrapers but of their interaction. Because Abbott doesn’t isolate the elements that make up the city–indeed, her art lies in timing, in composition, in creative juxtaposition–her images are intimately tied to the specific time at which they were made. They are images, in effect, of the process of change.

One of Abbott’s most famous photographs is El, Second and Third Avenue Lines. The photograph is taken from street level; the girders and ties of the elevated railway line above are matched perfectly by the shadows with which the bright midday sunlight stripes the pavement. The shops and pedestrians on the far side of the intersection, mottled with light and shadow, are in sharp focus. Near the camera, two men stand next to one of the pillars supporting the el; they are blurred and almost entirely silhouetted. The railway may be solid, but those ghostly, transient figures surely are not. Abbott has combined her attention to form (the patterns of light and shadow) with the untold story of those two figures. The photograph isn’t a documentation of the railway, whose architecture is better illustrated by its shadow than by the little we can actually distinguish of its structure; instead it’s a celebration of light, a memory of a single identifiable and unrepeatable moment.

Atget and Abbott were of different generations. I imagine Atget creating his own museum of Paris, a permanent record of the way the place looked to him. And I imagine Abbott, in a city changing faster and building higher than Paris, realizing that there was no way to get it all down on film–just abundant opportunities to paint pictures by means of light and an individual point of view.