December 14, 1981 12:00 PM

by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg

Although he was virtually unknown when he died in 1927 at age 70, Eugène Atget compiled a heroic photographic record of life in France. His popularity is due to fellow photographer Berenice Abbott, who after his death purchased the contents of his studio, about 5,000 prints and 1,000 plates. In 1968 the collection went to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has been organizing it ever since. With this massive task just completed, the first Atget exhibition is currently at MOMA through Jan. 3, 1982. Later it will travel to Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit and San Francisco. Three future shows will follow the same pattern. This book of 121 photographs is the first of four volumes designed to accompany the exhibits. It depicts the last vestiges of la vieille France as it faced the encroachments of modern civilization. The dreamy, sepia-colored photos show country roads, village squares, cottage doorways and ancient trees. There are only fleeting glimpses of Atget’s countrymen, perhaps because each exposure took up to two minutes. Still, as Szarkowski, MOMA’s director of photography, writes: “All of Atget’s pictures are informed by a precise visual intelligence, by the clarté that is the highest virtue of the French tradition.” (Museum of Modern Art and New York Graphic Society, $40)

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