Atget’s technique

Eugène Atget The former Collège de Chanac, 12 rue de Bièvre, 5th arrondissement August 1900, albumen photograph © Musée Carnavalet, Paris/Roger-Viollet/TopFoto

Atget used a view camera with a bellows placed on a tripod, typical of the second half of the 19th century. He worked with 18 × 24 cm negative glass plates, oriented to obtain either a vertical or horizontal photograph. A tilt-shift technique was used to make perspective corrections. This resulted in vignetting (a circular shadow around the edges of the image), a phenomenon seen in a number of Atget’s photographs.

Atget always used gelatin-silver negative glass plates, 1.5mm thick. The plate was held in the camera in a wooden frame by clips that left characteristic marks on many of the prints. A long exposure time resulted in numerous blurs caused by the presence of moving people or objects. Atget developed the negatives himself and wrote the negative number directly onto the gelatin with a pointed stiletto.

Atget made all of his own photographic prints using a technique in which light-sensitive paper, in contact with the glass negative, was printed-out in natural light (never developed). The printing-out process proceeded until Atget determined that the image had the proper density. The photograph was then washed, gold toned, fixed and washed again. Atget’s prints are never black-and-white; their tone varies from deep sepia to violet-brown. Atget was capable of producing high-quality prints but there is great variation in these today depending on his printing and toning techniques and the way his photographs were preserved and exhibited. He never enlarged his photographs.

Atget’s paper

Atget used three types of paper:

The light-sensitive emulsion was formed by silver chloride introduced into an albumen binder (beaten egg whites). The majority of Atget’s prints were on albumen paper. He turned to other processes after the First World War, when such paper could no longer be found on the market

matt albumen
After the war Atget used another kind of industrially produced printing-out paper with a matt surface

Atget chose a commercially manufactured printing-out paper made with gelatin. Aesthetically similar to albumen prints, although thicker and with a glossier surface, the process was the same for toning and printing. Some of these prints have yellow stains from sulphuration due to poor processing of the image (such as the use of an exhausted fixing bath or insufficient washing).