Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's so special about the Eiffel Tower?

I shoot a pretty wide range of subject matter. Perhaps the thing that best ties it all together is that I am interested in my immediate surroundings, in the visual vernacular. I don't have much interest in visiting exotic countries or shooting celebrities, or anything else that has been deemed culturally "special". I know it sounds cliche but to me, the special is in the everyday.

Eugene Atget, Le Cirque

The more I shoot this way, the more amazed I am that Atget never shot the Eiffel Tower. Never! He took up photography in the 1890s shortly after the tower was completed. From that point onward he must've seen the thing popping above streets and roofs from all angles. Every journey into some Parisian neighborhood, the tower was present in the background. It would seem to be a natural draw for a photographer. Iconic. Romantic. Powerful. It would be like visiting Yosemite for 40 years and never shooting a waterfall. Wasn't he tempted, at least once? What made that guy tick? What kept him so focused on "nonspecial" subject matter?

I'm thinking about this today because I've been going through film from the past few weeks. The photos that seem to work best, the scenes I am drawn most to, are those with a wide range of distance. You can seem something close by, something a little further, a third thing at maybe 100 feet, and then some hills or trees in the distance. These are the scenes that seem to best convey the nature of my surroundings, and that best array visual information.

From the Big Pink series

If I was shooting this style in Paris, the thing that would pop up in a lot of backgrounds is the Tower. The Tower would be my visual plaything. I would layer it, compositionally squeeze it, hide it, put it in windows, treat it like photographic silly putty the way I've treated Portland's Big Pink. It wouldn't be in every photo but it would at least be in some of them.

Not Atget. But why not? Why did he, as appears evident, make an effort not to include it in any photos? It wasn't that he was averse to documenting iconic structure. When he chose to he could send a viewer's attention to the skyline:

Perhaps the answer to this question reveals a key to Atget, something that explains why he's Atget and I'm, well, just me.
I think Atget considered the Eiffel Tower too much of a celebrity. Sure, it was vernacular, but it was also culturally "special". I want to reach back through time and tell me, "It's OK, Eugene, the thing's right in your backyard. People might consider it special but it belongs in your immediate surroundings. You can shoot the thing." Would I be lying?


Anonymous said...

My guess is, he didn't want to photograph things that a million other people already photographed. (Like the Eiffel tower.)

Anonymous said...

when the eiffel tower was first erected many locals loathed the structure..