Silent Cities: Atget and the Modern Urban Landscape

The Norton Simon Museum presents Silent Cities: Atget and the Modern Urban Landscape,  an exhibition of thirty works by Eugène Atget and some the the best-known photographers of the 20th century.

Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was almost unknown at the time of his death, however, the quality of the photographs he took in and around Paris established a standard by which urban photography has been judged. He was one of the first photographers to look at the city as a whole. Having no interest in the soft-focus "artistic" photography fashionable at the turn of the century, he took only straight photographs. He recorded in loving detail the human and physical fabric of urban life: the architectural spaces of the rich and the poor, the vitality and the sadness, the endless activity of the daylight hours, and the quiet stillness of dawn.

As Atget's fame spread during the 1930s, his work was an inspiration to both photojournalists and master photographers of the era, such as Abbott, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, and Kertész in Europe, as well as Charles Sheeler, Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, and Ansel Adams in America. Adams, like so many photographers of his generation, looked back on Atget as the first European modernist: "His work is a simple revelation of the simplist aspects of his enviroment. There is no superimposed symbolic motive, no tortured application of design, no intellectual ax to grind. The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art." The next generation of modernists who matured during the 1950s and '60s continued to look at city life with eyes that Atget's vision helped to focus. The exhibition concludes with urban photographs of the 1950s and 60s.