I am beginning to notice more about my own city
I am strongly drawn to the work of the great French photographer Eug`ene Atget (1857-1927), for in it he reveals a heartfelt commitment to his city. His city was Paris, mine is New York. I respect a person's devotion to the place where he lives, having formed a close bond with my own city. I have lived in New York City all my life. Through the years, I have walked over 30,000 miles along the city's pavements, more than the circumference of the earth. The streets, buildings, bridges, and people are as much a part of me as my limbs. Not that I am an uncritical booster of New York. As a practicing lawyer and a person deeply involved with problems of prisoners and the poor and homeless, I am more aware of the city's pathology than most.
Atget, too, was familiar with the ``miseries and treasures'' of his city. But he came to know his city far better than I can ever hope to know mine. As one learns from the masterly four-volume book series, ``The Work of Atget,'' by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg, Paris for him was both a private passion and a life undertaking. He chose as his lifework to photograph the art and architecture of old Paris as well as the traditional street trades of the city.
Atget began taking pictures of Paris around 1897. Within four years he had made some 1,400 photographs of the city. He was very independent and photographed only what he deemed interesting, beautiful, or important. He cherished the cobblestone streets, the iron lampposts, the fountains, and the sidewalks shaded by cooling trees. One of his early pictures, ``Bitumiers,'' is an eloquent depiction of workmen laying down a new pavement. On their knees, the workmen, with tools in their hands, tenderly smooth
the surface of the freshly poured macadam.
On numerous occasions he photographed the horse-drawn carriages of the city. (His father and grandfather had both been carriagemakers.) Shop windows fascinated him, especially those containing clothing store mannequins. Atget's own image often appears in the reflection of the glass window he is photographing.
His fondness for Paris extended to little-noticed artifacts of the city; doors, for example. He filled at least four albums with pictures of doors. Other subjects that attracted his eye were wrought-iron signs: and ornamented grills and balustrades.
(After examining the loving detail of his work, I find that I am beginning to notice more about my own city. Thus for the first time I saw horses' heads carved in stone relief above the ground floor windows of the carriage house adjoining my apartment building.)
He often began work at dawn and would continue until the last light of day. A photograph of the Rue de la Montagne-Ste.-Genevi`eve reveals a sidewalk still wet from an early-morning scrub. Empty metal milk cans are lined up in front of a dairy shop, the milkman not yet having arrived to collect them. A picture of the same scene taken later in the day shows the sidewalks to be dry. The milk cans are gone and the dairy store proprietor and adjoining shop owner have lowered striped awnings over the windows
to shield their goods from the midmorning sun. As the authors of ``The Work of Atget'' point out, we are witnesses to the ``unfolding of the Parisian day.''
Atget enjoyed revisiting his favorite parts of the city. Repeatedly he photographed the quais of the Seine and the city's bridges, especially the Pont Neuf and Pont Marie. Once each year he would photograph a beloved spot in the Latin Quarter, an area given that name by Rabelais because of the Latin-speaking students of the University of Paris who used to fill the streets. Atget photographed the Luxembourg Gardens regularly over a period of more than a quarter-century.
On spring mornings he would take pictures of the Ile Saint-Louis, that haven of tranquillity in the Seine. Viewing these photographs of wet pavement in fog, I am reminded of my walks along the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue in the mist, and these words of Nabokov: ``My happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp. . . .''