ABSTRACT

The photographs of Eugène Atget taken from the late 1890s depict a city all but emptied of its inhabitants: a haunted topography of deserted, posterplastered streets, dark cobbled alleyways, entrances, courtyards, and derelict squares (Figure 3.1). The images, elegiac in their emptiness and ominously staged, suggest a forensic gaze, reminding us of Susan Sontag’s observation that the preeminent function of photographs is to “furnish evidence.”1 Paris is opened up for inspection by the camera even as it appears closed down, the dereliction suggesting mass exodus or quarantine. For the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Atget’s pictures recall a crime scene: they bear evidence of a wrongdoing. In his 1931 essay “Little History of Photography” [Kleine Geschichte der Photographie], Benjamin notes, “It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene?”2