Eugene Atget Photographed Reality and Surreality

The title tells it all: “Documents pour artistes” is the name of the show, but was also the name of Eugene Atget’s shop in Paris. The French photographer (1857 to 1927) insisted his photographs—all 8,500 of them—were merely documents for sale to craftspeople, and then, as he grew in popularity, to avant-garde artists. He was not above, in fact clearly enjoyed, making pictures of doorknobs, gargoyles, prostitutes and gypsies—not necessarily in that order. He also was superb, finally, and at the end of his life, in photographing the ruins at the Sceaux gardens outside of the city.

Atget's Avenue des Gobelins

So modest he rejected the idea of signing his “Pendant L’Eclipse” (Parisians staring upwards at an eclipse, a bizarre moment in time) for the journal La Revolution Surrealist featuring the work of Man Ray, he still came to be associated with the Surrealists in a residential twist of fate: Man Ray was his neighbor, and Man Ray’s assistant was Berenice Abbott, the New York photographer who eventually obtained Atget’s estate for MOMA’s collection.

You can see why the Surrealists were attracted to the segment of his work which concentrates on Parisian storefronts: headless mannequins, stuffed animals (in a Natural History shop), other bizarre-seeming found objects. But the truth is the Surrealist connection was an art historical afterthought: Atget photographed what he wanted, and kept at it, never cropping his photographs, always using the same process of glass plates, then gelatin- or albumen- silver paper, as this dilettante understands it. Comrades called him “strong”; shall we say obsessive?

Nevertheless he made a living, and yes, he did get a “vision” of sorts. There are six thematic mini-shows in the exhibit: I liked the disarray of the abandoned Sceaux park which has its share of lopped-off figures, but others will be drawn to the vibrant street life, or the more formal arrangements of the Luxembourg Gardens. No clichés though: nary an Eiffel tower or a kid with a baguette.

The presentation is fitting: a taupe entrance wall with plain black lettering, the photo groupings on light blue. It’s not hidden away. You just have to look. Point.

“Documents pour artistes” The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, Through April 9, 2012. The Robert and Joyce Menschel Photography Gallery, Third Floor Galleries, 212-708-9400, www.moma.org