The photographs of Charles Marville are far handsomer than they need to be. Marville, a pioneer of early French photography, spent years working for the government of Paris, and much of what he produced was intended merely to document a city in rapid change. But his work transcends the objectivity of documentary style, capturing intricate details and loading the image with small dramas. Long before Eugene Atget photographed the disappearing nooks and crannies of old Paris in the early 20th century, Marville captured the tumultuous first assault on the urban landscape, as Baron Haussmann transformed the ancient city into the elegant metropolis we know today.

Marville’s nearly 30-year photographic career is the subject of an extensive and illuminating exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. It opens with delicate, even tenuous images made with paper negatives in the early 1850s, and ends with a series of photographs made much later that document the new “street furniture” of Paris, its lampposts, urinals and poster columns. These last photographs, meticulously constructed and finely detailed, are among his best, small essays in mood and light, and often teasingly mysterious. Where is the newspaper vendor who should be tending the small kiosk on an empty street corner? Indeed, why does Marville’s city often seem so desolate, as if trapped in the gray light of perpetual winter?

In some cases, the people are there, unseen, passing too quickly to be registered by the relatively slow exposure time of the negative. But in many cases, they are simply absent. Paris went through radical transformation beginning in the 1850s, as thousands of buildings were demolished to make way for a new city of wide avenues and public plazas. Marville produced photographs that help document the before and after of this change, which had an often brutal impact on those displaced from their homes and livelihoods by the modernization campaign. The emptiness of many of these images may be purely accidental, or an intentional documentary strategy; it also feels like an artistic analogue for the emptying out and devastation of old Paris.

In some ways, Marville’s work is curiously similar to the photographs of Arnold Odermatt, which are on display as part of the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control” exhibition.

Odermatt, a Swiss police photographer who produced exquisitely composed photographs of mid-century automobile accidents, made images that are suspiciously artistic, too good to be merely documentary work, yet clear and concise in their documentary function. Like Marville, Odermatt photographed destruction, and like the work of Marville, his images feel motivated by something more than just the desire to catalogue the world. It’s tempting, but entirely speculative, to believe that both photographers felt motivated by the gravity of what they witnessed to transcend any mere evidentiary role.

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris. Cat. No. frontispiece / File Name: 3209-148.jpg, Charles Marville, Self-Portrait, 1861, albumen print from collodion negative, image: 23.5 × 18.3 cm (9 1/4 × 7 3/16 in.) sheet: 27.5 × 21 cm (10 13/16 × 8 1/4 in.) framed: 44.7 × 37 × 3 cm (17 5/8 × 14 9/16 × 1 3/16 in.) (Collection Debuisson/Collection Debuisson)

But we don’t know much about what Marville was after in these images. It’s possible there is some measure of social critique in a photograph of a shanty town where the poor and displaced lived in squalor as the new Paris rose in splendor. In the foreground of this terrifying scene of jumbled shacks, the photographer placed a boy with his back partly turned to the viewer, a lonely figure contemplating the price of progress. Or perhaps he was there just to give us a helpful bit of information, a human reference point to gauge the size of the nearby buildings. Marville began his career as an illustrator, so he may have had a reflexive instinct toward visual cliche.

One senses a similar bit of cryptic commentary in an earlier photograph of the Bois de Boulogne, the extensive pleasure grounds on the edge of Paris. Here, a man sits alone and looks at a bridge that connects the park to the industrial town of Suresnes. A smokestack rises in the distance, and like many of Marville’s works, the drama is in the juncture between past and future, old and new, a fantasy of rural life and the modern reality of commerce and development.

Marville photographed narrow streets and small passageways that no longer exist, and he captured a Paris that was more architecturally diverse than the city of regulated heights and uniform facades that we know today. He often placed his camera at a corner, and photographed the scene straight on, but he was particularly effective at using light to give a sense of what lies behind buildings in the foreground, revealing tantalizing glimpses through a dark arch or portal to the street beyond. Advertisements and posters are clearly legible, and in some cases they capture the larger urban trauma: In one image, a building is plastered with signs advertising a sale “pour cause d’expropriation,” a liquidation before the demolition begins.

Marville captured both the Paris of Balzac and the emerging Paris of Zola. But the new Paris often feels unprocessed and lifeless. It was a city of spindly trees and wide avenues, and a perpetual work zone. This exhibition focuses less on what Paris was becoming, and concentrates instead on the transition. A shadowy sense of the magnificent new Garnier opera house can be seen in the distance of a photograph made in 1876, but the real subject is demolition, a scene of war-like devastation, broken buildings, gaping windows, and crumbling roofs. It almost makes one feel guilty to take any pleasure in the grand Avenue de l’Opera today. Cities are completely unsentimental about our memories, our need to hold on, to preserve what we find beautiful or at least familiar; new Paris expunged the old without mercy, and now it’s lasted long enough that no one misses what was destroyed.

The poetry of new Paris isn’t formed yet in Marville’s pictures, though in the last room of the show one senses him struggling to find it. Marville was commissioned by the city to document the streetlamps and other improvements that were added to the city beginning in the 1860s. Contemporary viewers will see these carefully composed images of gas lamps as charmingly nostalgic — the Paris of postcards — but Marville was in fact documenting the details of a modernization campaign. If the beauty of the emerging city is often ambiguous, or even absent in other images, these photographs suggest that by narrowing his field of focus, the photographer was beginning to discover emerging delights.

But all of that is projection. Marville remained an elusive figure throughout his life, and his work feels elusive still. Although successful and highly esteemed as a professional, his reputation was rapidly eclipsed after his death in 1879. Today, his images are often contained neatly in the box of “before” and “after” curiosity, used to document what was lost and compare it with what is there now. Sarah Kennel, the enterprising curator of this exhibition, wisely avoids that route, and doesn’t attempt to clarify Marville’s unknown social agenda (if he had any at all). Instead, she has selected material that shows the photographer’s range, his evolving technique, his mastery of different photographic processes, and his professional relationship with the City of Paris and other employers. But at every turn, the viewer will encounter photographs that are simply too fine to be the hackwork of a man making work to order, stuffing the archives with data or dutifully documenting the march of progress.

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 5. For more information, call 202-737-4215 or visit