Jean-Eugène-August Atget was born in 1857 at Libourne (Gironde) to Jean-Eugène Atget, a coachbuilder, and Clara-Adeline Hourlier. He was raised by his grandparents after his parents died in 1862.
In his youth, Atget worked on ships sailing to Africa and South America. An aspiring actor, he settled in Paris in 1878. He gained entry to the Conservatoire national de musique et d’art dramatique on his second attempt in 1879 but failed to pass the exams in 1881 and spent the year doing military service in Tarbes (Pyrenees).
Returning to Paris, he published four issues of a satirical paper Le flâneur (The dandy), which includes some of his drawings. He also played minor acting roles in theatre productions in the suburbs of Paris and provincial France and moved in artistic circles. In 1886, he met the actress Valentine Compagnon who remained his life partner until her death in 1926.
His earliest photographs were taken in the rural region of Somme in the north of France, prior to his permanent relocation to Paris in 1890 where he established his commercial operation. A calling card produced soon after stated what he had to offer: images of ‘landscapes, animals, flowers, monuments, documents, foreground studies for artists, reproductions of paintings. Collection not for general sale’. However, Atget’s working methods differed from typical photographic businesses of the time with similar specialisations. He is not known to have had any assistants, shunned publicity, never exhibited in his lifetime and rarely took commissioned assignments. The peculiarities of Atget’s practice are even more striking when one considers the overall context of photography at the time he entered the field.