These scenes of a busy Paris market were photographed by Eugène Atget (12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927), a noted early documentary photographer. Though now regarded as one of the pioneers of photography, Atget did not enjoy commercial success or renown during his lifetime. In the years subsequent to his death, Atget fame and recognition grew, based on his body of work which documented the street scenes of Paris at the end of the 19th century.
This period was one of unprecedented prosperity and change as Europe began to modernize under the impetus of new inventions such as electric lighting, motor vehicles and other inventions which moved Paris and the rest of France into the modern era. Realizing that the world was changing forever, Atget set about photographing all aspects of Parisian life in an effort to create a lasting documentary record of what life was like.
The picture below is a fine example of a street scene photographed by Atget. It shows men and women going about their daily lives, in a completely candid and unposed photo.
Note the absence of vehicular traffic except for a couple of horse drawn carriages. Most of the people are walking, some clearly for a leisurely stroll, others appear to be carrying their groceries and other purchases. The world is similar to what we are used to but also different, especially if we look closely. There are no power or telephone cables; there are no visible street lamps so this street would likely have been very dark after sundown. Men wear suits and women wear dresses, as do the boys and girls who are dressed as miniature versions of the adults. There are no name bran clothes, no logos. Everyone is dressed modestly. The men wear hats. The women wear skirts that come to their ankles; no one is dressed provocatively. Even the young women are demure; there is no cleavage or excess skin shown.
If we zoom in and enlarge portions of the picture we can see even more detail about this bygone world.
The picture above is a close up of the billboard advertising on the side of the main building shown at the center of the square. It reads, in French: “Grand Universal Bazaar – House of L. Demoge. Recommended for its Large Selection and Selling the Best Deals in all of Paris.”
What’s interesting also about this bill board is the flimsy rope ladder that you can see straddling the middle of the advertising – it runs from the top of the roof to the lower level of the building. It’s not clear if this ladder was to service the billboard or just to access the roof. Whatever it’s purpose it loos extremely unstable and dangerous. You can imagine a poorly paid Parisian workman having to climb that for a few sous.
Above is a close up of one of the groups of people in the street scene. Here a young woman, perhaps the mother or a governess, is struggling to control a couple young children.
Below is another closeup, this time of the people outside of the church. Some women are carrying large baskets, perhaps with pies in them. There are a couple of delivery vehicles, all horse drawn.
Above is another close up of the action at street level. We can see men and women talking and laughing. Some walk alone and with noticeable purpose. Others are strolling or killing time. It is a good day, sunny, in a Paris at the height of its prosperity and glory. The Eiffel Tower has been built less than 10 years earlier, and Paris basques in the glow of a golden age.
It was a normal day, a happy day. The people here are all long gone. Many of them would be killed in World War 1, just around the corner. If not for these rare photographs these images of a bygone and golden past would have faded forever.