Ben Lifson Essays

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His dedication to a self-imposed, encyclopedic task that went on for some 30 years - that of recording the vestiges of traditional French life before they were bulldozed by modernity - is surely a measure of this accomplishment.

However, the museum is also telling us something else, something more specific and more peculiar to its own sense of photography as a form of art: namely, that Atget is no less than the founding father of Modernist photography.

Szarkowski concedes that Evans had already arrived at the beginnings of his own transparent, frontal style, and that Atget's work may merely have served as a ''confirmation'' of his path.

Given this rather strained effort to construct a chain of influence forward from Atget, it is peculiar that Mr.

His apparent awareness of the frame, his ability to compose on the basis of black-and-white tonalities, his ready acceptance of the oddities of lenticular perspective, of juxtaposition and reflection - all serve as evidence that Atget was not a na"if who stumbled accidentally on a new way of using the camera but, in Mr.

Szarkowski's words, ''a conscious artist.'' So we would appear to have a choice between looking on Atget as an exemplary documentary photographer and seeing him as a formally innovative artistic genius.The date that Atget first allowed them to cross the threshold of his view camera has not been fixed with certainty, but it is clear that he avoided horseless carriages as long as possible.When they do appear, as in a 1922 image of the Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle, their presence comes as a shock.Szarkowski has nothing to say about how Atget may have been influenced by photographers who came before him.It is especially odd since the curator's collaborator on this long project, Maria Morris Hambourg, is not only a scholar of Atget but also of Marville, the photographer whose kinship with Atget is most obvious.The images of Saint- Cloud and Sceaux are clearly the more Modernist and, in their abandonment of practically any pretense of reportage, the more illusionistic.In the two exhibitions, then, Atget is shown both ways: as primitive and as pioneer, as the tradesman photographer whose business provided '' Documents pour Artistes'' and as a genius of esthetic discovery unrecognized until after his death. Szarkowski, having long championed Atget's case, clearly is most concerned with giving the photographer a preeminent position within his own rubric of 20th-century photography.Over the last four years the Museum of Modern Art's department of photography has organized a series of four major exhibitions involving a total of close to 500 photographs, supervised the publication of four exquisitely reproduced books and devoted uncounted hours to research and writing, all with one aim: to establish Eug ene Atget (1857-1927) as a great photographer.With the third and fourth exhibitions opening simultaneously at the museum this week and the fourth book coming off the presses, it now seems safe to say that the Modern has accomplished its mission.There is no longer any doubt, if indeed there ever was, that Atget is one of the great practitioners of the medium.But one question remains, even after the museum's gargantuan efforts: what exactly is it that makes Atget great?

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