Canon Fodder:Authoring Eugène Atget

Responses to Abigail Solomon-Godeau “Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget”

This is a very interesting article, with more than a hint of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ about it. Her target are those involved in the promotion of photography as art – particularly John Szarkowski – who choose specific aspects of Atget’s work to promote their own agenda.

In the case of Berenice Abbott, who Solomon-Godeau identifies as the first to assign the idea of authorship to Eugène Atget, there seems a direct parallel between her adoption of Atget as an influence and the need for students on this course to ‘show their working’. One cannot just produce photographs out of thin air without any acknowledged influences and expect to be taken seriously.

Although her article is specifically about the adoption of Atget into the photographic canon, the same argument can be made for many other photographers as well. Solomon-Godeau says “most photography is produced for functional and instrumental purposes, not aesthetic ones”(Solomon-Godeau,1994:39). Atget may be an extreme example in that his work was largely unrecognised at the time, but many others have since had their functional and instrumental work similarly re-evaluated. If Atget did mostly produce his work as a commercial enterprise, is this not also true of the FSA photographers for example? Much effort has subsequently been expended on identifying the intentions and influences of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange etc., but their FSA work was produced for political (small ‘p’) purposes. Aesthetic considerations were what they could get away with in the circumstances.

The misplaced repositioning of Atget in the art-photography canon may be the focus of her article but the real target is not even those doing the repositioning themselves. Solomon-Godeau doesn’t seem to have much time for John Szarkowski but it seems she is more attacking those who would take his (and others) evaluations as gospel truth. Any reading of photography is as much about the viewer as the artist, so critical re-evaluation will always be a valid exercise. Her complaint is more that muddled thinking is not challenged anywhere near enough.

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Photography At The Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Media and Society). (First Edition) (s.l.): University Of Minnesota Press.

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