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Atget’s technique

Eugène Atget The former Collège de Chanac, 12 rue de Bièvre, 5th arrondissement August 1900, albumen photograph © Musée Carnavalet, Paris/Roger-Viollet/TopFoto

Atget used a view camera with a bellows placed on a tripod, typical of the second half of the 19th century. He worked with 18 × 24 cm negative glass plates, oriented to obtain either a vertical or horizontal photograph. A tilt-shift technique was used to make perspective corrections. This resulted in vignetting (a circular shadow around the edges of the image), a phenomenon seen in a number of Atget’s photographs.

Atget always used gelatin-silver negative glass plates, 1.5mm thick. The plate was held in the camera in a wooden frame by clips that left characteristic marks on many of the prints. A long exposure time resulted in numerous blurs caused by the presence of moving people or objects. Atget developed the negatives himself and wrote the negative number directly onto the gelatin with a pointed stiletto.

Atget made all of his own photographic prints using a technique in which light-sensitive paper, in contact with the glass negative, was printed-out in natural light (never developed). The printing-out process proceeded until Atget determined that the image had the proper density. The photograph was then washed, gold toned, fixed and washed again. Atget’s prints are never black-and-white; their tone varies from deep sepia to violet-brown. Atget was capable of producing high-quality prints but there is great variation in these today depending on his printing and toning techniques and the way his photographs were preserved and exhibited. He never enlarged his photographs.

Atget’s paper

Atget used three types of paper:

The light-sensitive emulsion was formed by silver chloride introduced into an albumen binder (beaten egg whites). The majority of Atget’s prints were on albumen paper. He turned to other processes after the First World War, when such paper could no longer be found on the market

matt albumen
After the war Atget used another kind of industrially produced printing-out paper with a matt surface

Atget chose a commercially manufactured printing-out paper made with gelatin. Aesthetically similar to albumen prints, although thicker and with a glossier surface, the process was the same for toning and printing. Some of these prints have yellow stains from sulphuration due to poor processing of the image (such as the use of an exhausted fixing bath or insufficient washing).

Eugène Atget Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th arrondissement 1921, gelatin Aristotype, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

Focus works

Eugène Atget
The former Collège de Chanac, 12 rue de Bièvre, 5th arrondissement August 1900
Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th arrondissement 1921
exhibited in the section 'The streets of Paris’

K-6 activities

  • Look at Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th arrondissement in our collection. Imagine walking along this street. What would you hear? Can you see any people? What time of day is it? Describe the mood of the scene. How does it make you feel? Imagine you can enter this scene. Draw a picture of what you can see round the corner as you move up the street.
  • Atget documented different part of the city of Paris, often photographing streets, people and details on buildings. Document your school using a camera and make sketches. Look for interesting features and details that make your school unique. Consider different angles and viewpoints and try to find parts of your school that people tend to disregard or ignore. Discuss how your sketches and photographs could make people look at their environment with a renewed vision.

7-12 issues for consideration

  • Compare photography techniques from the early 20th century to those used today. Consider how technology has changed the way we image our world. Why do you think Atget used glass plates and albumen paper even when film negatives were available? Has this process contributed to the success of the image? What alternatives for this process are available today?
  • Look for evidence of Atget’s process on the photographs in this exhibition, particularly clip marks, vignetting and blurring created by long exposure times. How do other photographers sometimes leave traces of their process on their work?