At the Museum of Modern Art, I visited the photography exhibitions of Cindy Sherman, Sanja Ivekovic, and Eugene Atget. I was there for the Atget photographs, but the other two artists provided an unexpected context to understand Atget’s work. Cindy Sherman, in her photos of high-society women, lays bare an age of excess; Sanja Ivekovic, in her “Double Life” collection with parallels between media portraits and individual life, reveals to us the deep influence of media representations. Both these are acts of rebellion: an aspect of reality is taken and distorted or challenged in different ways. Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s concept of literature’s purpose (“This questioning of real life, which is the secret raison d’etre of literature – of literary vocation – ensures that literature offers a unique vision of a given period,” he writes, in his Letters to a young novelist), these artists have used photography to criticise or reject real life, and, in some cases, to imagine a different version of it.
Atget had no such lofty aims. He simply wanted to document the landscape in and around Paris. Storefronts, courtyards, doors, facades, fountains, boulevards, trees, parks: these common objects are the motif of his photographs. His ambition was “to create images for other artists to use as source material,” and he was content capturing the texture of the city, its essence and moods, with no intention of challenging status quo or exposing its contradictions.