Street Prostitute, Fort-Monjol, April 19, 1921, by Eugène Atget
Eugène Atget took relatively few pictures of people. There is a series dating from about 1898 to 1900 of people in the small trades (petits métiers): the ragpicker, the organ grinder, ambulatory vendors of herbs, lampshades, plaster statues, baskets. And then there is a small series on prostitutes, from 1921. Some have claimed that Atget was commissioned to document prostitution by the painter and illustrator André Dignimont, whose generally raffish subject matter included a great many brothel scenes. As John Szarkowski points out in his book on Atget, though, he seems to have pursued the task with "an uncharacteristic lack of energy." He only took about a dozen pictures all told, and all of them were taken on a single street.
That street, which no longer exists, was rue Asselin. It was the center of a small neighborhood called Fort-Monjol, which lay in Belleville, beneath the southern tip of the Buttes-Chaumont. The city began razing the neighborhood in the 1870s and finished the job in the early 1930s. It had a troubled history. Until 1629 it had been the site of the municipal gibbet of Montfaucon, a multi-story scaffold on which fifty people could be hanged at once. Even before that, and until the middle of the nineteenth century, it lay within a vast garbage dump, serving the entire city. Until the First World War it was noted as a hangout of hoodlums, where bloody knife fights occurred daily, and also as a place where, in the words of a chronicler of the time, "every skin disease of humanity seemed to have met up: mealy psoriasis, purulent acne, flabby boils, inveterate staphylococcus and streptococcus, tumors, scabies--all flourished in the saltpeter of those stinking walls alive with vermin." By the time Atget took his photographs it had achieved a certain peace, as a rather specialized prostitution district.
Its distinction lay in the fact that its women were, at least by the standards of the time, old. Reportedly, the deadliest taunt among whores was "You'll end up at Monjol!" Nevertheless, to judge by Atget's pictures, the environment was significantly less stressful than most, in a city that then contained dozens of major venues of street prostitution. Here there were no pimps. The women, who had survived decades of hard use, sat on chairs outside their doors; at least one of them worked out of a gypsy wagon. A writer in 1927, warning his readers away, could muster as argument only the fact that the clientele was largely—he employed a racist slur—North African.
In 1921, Atget himself was 64; he would live only six more years. Could it be that he felt some kinship with the women? Certainly the pictures include some of the very rare instances of direct eye-contact in Atget's work (another is his ragpicker, who gives the photographer a look of cold contempt). One of the pictures in the series, of three women in a doorway, shows them all smiling. The woman here, younger than most (she looks no more than 50), projects toughness with her hooded stare and her vigilant cigarette. She is canted back, knees wide open, at her ease, available at a price. She shows off her elegant boot, although the distortion caused by Atget's lens makes it look as if she is keeping her chair from tipping over on the sloping cobblestones. Like the pavement, the houses behind her look somehow topographic, as if they have been hewn from stone. The afternoon will soon have lasted a century.