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Between clutter and containment : situating Eugène Atget’s "Intérieurs parisiens" Khonsary, Jaffar Jeffrey

Abstract

In 1910, Eugène Atget began a photographic series documenting apartment spaces of different classes throughout the city of Paris. Latter bound into albums, and entitled "Intérieurs parisiens, début du XXe Siècle, artistiques, pittoresques et bourgeois", this series incorporated sixty black and white photographs of a dozen separate uninhabited, residential interiors — each framed by a brief, handwritten caption describing the identity of the now absent resident. Atget eventually made three, slightly different editions of the "Intérieurs parisiens" series, which he sold to photographic archives within the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Despite the expanding art historical discourse that developed around Atget's body of work over the final decades of the twentieth-century, the "Intérieurs parisiens" series has received remarkably little extended academic investigation, perhaps because of its peculiarity and relative obscurity within Atget's larger, better known body of work. Using the three editions of Atget's "Intérieurs parisiens" as a material foundation, the present paper attempts to situate the "Intérieurs" photographs within a series of overlapping historical contexts: 1) Atget's commercial practice, and the institutional circulation of his photographs; 2) the changing physical and cultural space of the late nineteenth-century Parisian interior; 3) discourses of taste, hygiene and interior decoration; and 4) the art historical discourse that developed around Atget's practice over the final decades of the twentieth century. Within the "Intérieurs parisiens", Atget's camera creates a meticulous, almost obsessive catalogue of the fabric, furniture, and knick-knacks that populate otherwise empty rooms. Lining walls and overflowing tabletops, these objects form a surplus of captivating banality, and seem saturated with valuable evidence. Here, the remnants of everyday day life (the motif used on a piece of furniture, the titles of books sitting amongst a collection of others lining a shelf) reveal intersections between class, gender and national identity. Yet Atget's photographs, I want to claim, speak little of the private narratives they claim to possess — of the traumatic and indiscreet relationships between spaces, objects and bodies. This silence refuses any attempt to objectify identity — that is, to reduce identity to object and object to identity.

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