Atget was born in 1857 near the city of Bordeaux, and was raised by an uncle after becoming orphaned at the age of seven. After getting an education he enjoyed some time on the seas as a sailor and cabin boy on trans-Atlantic ships.
In the 1890s, Atget moved to Paris, and tried his hand at photography as a way to make money. He often sold his photos to artists in nearby Montparnasse, who would then recreate the scenes by painting them. Photography soon became a passion for Atget instead of a job and he accumulated thousands of images of Parisian sights and people. It wasn't long before he was selling his works to a variety of people such as architects, publishers and interior decorators and was even commissioned by city Bureaus and theCarnavalet Museum to photograph famous landmarks.
The mechanical vignetting often present in some corners of his shots was due to repositioning the lens relative to the plate on the camera - a technique he liked. Compared to many other similar photographers in Paris at the time,Atget preferred to avoid perfection in his images, aiming instead for humanism.
His photography was very pleasing to the eye and was admired by well-known contemporary artists including Man Ray, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse and Picasso. However, it was a woman named Bernice Abbott, who was an assistant to Man Ray, who helped to bring worldwide attention toAtget’s work in the 1920s.
Abbott often sent friends to Atget to buy his images. After Atget's died, she obtained the majority of his photos and exhibited them, along with writing a book on his work.
She wrote of Atget: "He was an urbanist historian, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization." In 1968, she arranged for The Museum of Modern Art in New York City to purchase Atget’s archive. The museum, which now owns about 5,000 of his prints and negatives, then displayed his photography in several exhibitions and publications and Atget became known as a master photographer.
Because of Abbott’s hard work, Atget's photographs have received a lot of recognition in the contemporary photographic world. Forty years after taking the photographs as a way to document life in Paris, they are now recognized as works of art. In 1981, the museum published a four-volume series of books based on its four exhibitions onAtget's life and photography. In 2007, ‘Atget, a Retrospective' was presented at the Bibliotheque Nationale.