Photographers of the Genius Loci

In his enormously influential work The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004) wrote, “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Photography as an art has moved on from this rather rigid statement, but even at the time it was written (1952) this was a far from an accurate summary of the  potentialities of the medium. Cartier-Bresson’s insight was in essence that photography was concerned with the capture of visually compelling instants, freezing the flow of time as the man jumps from the plank, as in Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932 (Lot 522), or as the child runs up the steps in another iconic image. This is one valid approach to the creation of the image, but there is a long tradition of photographers who were rooted not so much in time as in the spirit of place. For these practitioners, photography was a means to capture an expression of that which the Romans referred to as the genius loci. For them, the minutiae of place mattered far more than time in the form of the decisive moment.

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) was the quintessential photographer of this breed; the beauty of his Parisian storefronts, street scenes and carnivals, hôtels and closes, the details of metalwork and balcony, the elegance of Versailles and its environs, all of this was rendered palpable in his exquisite images, usually printed with the utmost elegance and often with penciled notes in his delicate handwriting on the reverse.

That he could encapsulate in his photographs the human life of his Paris streets is unarguable -- his rag pickers, tarts, the singing beggar girl all speak to the truth of that -- yet it is in the still silence of the parked carts, at the forbiddingly medieval closed doors, among the displays of shirts and corsetry in the shops of the Boulevard de Strasbourg (images beloved of the Surrealists), and in the silent gardens and statues of Versailles that he captured the eternal essence of his Paris (Lot 485 and Lot 486). He grew old in his art -- a photograph of the young Atget shows a handsome man of mild mien, those of the older man show a craggy, beaky and almost cadaverous figure, as if in the process of depicting his beloved city he had given too much of himself. This last portrait was that captured by the young Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991), who had been introduced to Atget by Man Ray, in her 1926 portrait of the maître. He died not long after it was taken.

Seemingly possessed by the feverish spirit that had driven Atget to spend a lifetime depicting Paris, upon her return to New York Abbott began to document that city much as he had documented his: the stoops of the Village, warehouses, the mighty bridges (Lot 506), the stations, the waterfront, the El (Lot 508). Mostly her urban views are devoid of indications of people, unless one counts the glow of countless lights in her classic night aerial view of midtown. She also spread the gospel of Atget’s work, printing from a selection of his glass plate negatives (she owned about five thousand of these) for an American audience for whom these images were completely fresh, and writing the first major book in English on her mentor (Lot 502).

In her book Vanishing New York, based on images taken under the aegis of the WPA Federal Art Project between 1925 and 1939, she captures exactly what that title implies; a city endlessly erasing its past (as New York always seems to have done). She created superb views of Penn Station in this period (ultimately demolished amid an outcry in 1963) (Lot 503) and much as Atget’s images create an eternal Paris of the mind (though much of what he photographed has, of course, gone), Abbott’s work created an equally eternal New York. The appeal of the work of these two photographers is not in the apprehension of singular moments, as Cartier-Bresson would have had it, but rather in their ability to capture something of the genius loci of their respective cities, or to put it another way, the City Eternal.


The auction on November 22, 2016 offers a section devoted to photographs of the 19th and 20th centuries, comprising lots 475 - 602. View catalogue and Place Bids

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