Visions and revisions of Paris

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

Amid the colorless rubble that rises up all around them, amid shattered brick and sheered off walls that once were homes, men gaze, as though shell-shocked, into the camera’s eye. This is hell on earth. It is also Paris, France. The photograph, taken in 1876, depicts the construction of the av­enue de l’Opéra (see p. 122, top). It is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a show devoted to the man who made it, Charles Marville.

Above: Rue de Constantine (fourth arrondissement) by Charles Marville (1813-1879), 1866. Albumen silver print from collodion negative, 10 ¾ by 14 ½ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel.

Walking among the peerless boulevards and squares of contemporary Paris, one can easily forget the half century of violent upheaval that the city had to endure in order to arrive at so perfect a consummation. In the fifty years between Napoleon III’s choosing Baron Haussmann as prefect of the Seine in 1853 and the introduction of the Métro in the early 1900s, much of Paris was a massive and incessant construction site. When the Second Empire came to its incendiary close in 1870, Haussmann was already as unpopular with Parisians as Robert Moses would be with New Yorkers when, after four decades in power, he was finally ousted in 1968.

In that latter half of the 1800s, Haussmann and successors like Jean-Charles-Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) wrought the greatest change upon a preexistent city since Augustus transformed Rome nineteen centuries earlier. Between those two events, surely, many a city had seen destruc­tion and growth; what is different about Hauss­mann’s Paris, aside from the scale of the labors, is the fact that they occurred at a moment when the still young medium of photography was able to record the transformation and that the man chosen to make many of those images, Charles Marville, proved to be as gifted as he was. In one sense, the photographs he produced seem like little more than a mechanical register of the facts on the ground. But a closer inspection reveals his consummate skill in choosing the best and most telling angles and compositions. Even now, one and a half centuries later, the viewer instinctively responds to that skill, feeling, as the photographer felt, the poignancy and ex­hilaration of the change.

Above: Arts et Métiers (Ancien Modèle) by Marville, 1864. Albumen silver print from collodion nega­tive, 14 ½ by 9 ½ inches.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts.

It is tempting to suppose that the depth of Marville’s feeling was in some measure a function of his having come from a family that had resided in Paris for generations. Born Charles-François Bossu to a tailor and a laun­dress in 1813, he came into the world at 6 rue de Béthisy and he passed out of it, sixty-six years later, at 75 rue d’Enfer.

Marville studied painting and illustration before he turned to photography. His early work in this new medium is richly displayed at the Metro­politan Museum (whose exhibition began at the National Gallery of Art in Washington). Unlike the Parisian scenes for which he is best known, these early images include several portraits and a self-portrait, as well as interior scenes and scenes of Germany and provincial France. In such early works Marville yields to the temptation, common at that time, to create photographs that reflect the aesthetic of contemporary painting. Either through the imperfections of the medium or through aesthetic choice, Marville’s slightly dif­fused focus suggests the late romantic ethos of the Barbizon school of landscape painters.

His first images of Paris, dating to the early 1850s, also exhibit that aesthetic. But by the time the French government hired him to photograph the city, a different mood, one of positivism in philosophy and realism in art, had come to dominate the culture, a shift that is evident in Marville’s photographs as well. It was part of the admirable modernity of Haussmann’s revolution that the city he largely created, the city as a work of art in itself, was also to be documented as one would document a work of art. Marville, along with several other photographers, was enlisted to provide that service. And although he remains, in the words of Sarah Kennel, the show’s curator, “the least known of the best-known photographers working in nineteenth-century France,” it might seem as if providence could not have devised a finer instrument than he. It is no coincidence that, exactly contemporary with his activities, the Musée Carnavalet was created by the government precisely to serve as a record of the city’s history. Today, of course, the historical dimension defines everything we see and do. But in Marville’s day it was, at least in application to an entire city, a radi­cally new notion. And the photographs he produced reflect, very nearly for the first time, this major shift in the way human cultures view themselves.

On several occasions, the Parisian magistrates enlisted Marville’s skills. One series of photographs records Haussmann and Alphand’s transformation of the Bois de Boulogne into a great urban park. Another is a register of the streets that were to be transformed or even eliminated in order to create the great avenues and boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris. A third series records the pristine prospects that resulted from that transformation.

The second of these series, mostly from the 1860s and depicting the remnants of old Paris on the eve of its disappearance, represents Marville’s greatest achievement, the one on which his posthumous fame rests most securely. Technically, these images are marvels of virtuosity, developed from collodion negatives measuring approximately ten by fourteen inches. No subsequent innovations in the art of photography have yielded more finely grained details than are provided in these works.

Above: Passage Saint-Benoît (sixth arrondissement) by Marville, 1864-1867. Albumen silver print from collodion nega­tive, 14 3/8 by 10 7/8 inches. Musée Carnavalet © Musée Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet.

Most of them were made on damp days between autumn and early spring. It is rare to see leaves on trees or sunlight enlivening the surfaces of things. In part, of course, this is simply a matter of the Parisian climate. But it seems likely that it has something to do with Marville’s desire to elicit from the camera the clearest and most accurate record of reality. Ev­erything from the wrought-iron runnels along the interiors of Les Halles to the sheered off post­ers aligning a street doomed to destruction, from the puddled rain on cobblestones to the ancient bas-reliefs of the Fontaine des Innocents, is pre­served in stunning and superabundant detail.

Inevitably many of these photographs will call to mind the Parisian images that Eugène Atget produced nearly half a century later. What dominates both bodies of work is the almost total absence of living things. To the eye of the viewer today, that absence is particularly haunting and poignant. It is deeply alienating as well. And yet the reasons for this absence are very different in the two photographers. It seems likely that Atget was to some degree influenced by the late symbolist mood that dominated French culture around 1900, a mood reflected in the music of Claude Debussy and the poetry of Georges Rodenbach. In Marville, by contrast, that gen­eral absence of human beings has an entirely technological explanation. It is likely that many of the scenes that Marville depicted were, in fact, teeming with human movement. But because of the time exposures required to produce collodion negatives, those figures left no trace in the final image. In images such as Fragment, Piliers des Halles, however, you can just make out ghostly tremors that record the fleeting traces of human forms that lingered long enough in the camera’s sights to register, but not long enough to achieve a full-bodied presence.

As a consequence, whenever you do see human forms in these Parisian scenes, even when, as usual, they are minute figures in the background, the very fact that they are legible at all is proof that they have been posed there by the photog­rapher and that their presence is intended to provide a sense of scale.

In another sense, however, humanity suffuses these images, and not least when it seems most absent. In part this is because, of course, the scenes depict a manmade cityscape. But it is also one of the delights of old photographs, and especially of truly first rate works like those of Marville, that there attaches to them, through their relentless and virtuosic regis­ter of a largely vanished human environment, a sense of pulsating human presence that is no less forceful for being, in most cases, entirely foreign to the photographer’s immediate intentions.

The exhibition Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 4 and will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from June 15 to September 14. It is accompanied by an excellent catalogue of the same title by Sarah Kennel et al., published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., and the University of Chicago Press.