You could call “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris” a snapshot of a lost city. Make that 400 or so snapshots.
Although the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art includes only 99 photographs and three bound albums, it centers on the Old Paris Album, a collection of photographs culled from about 400 negatives taken by Marville (1813-1879) before the radical modernization of Paris ordered by Emperor Napoleon III and directed by urban planner Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann. As edited for the exhibition, the Old Paris Album depicts a city of ancient, dilapidated buildings leaning into narrow streets that glisten with what looks like rainwater (but is probably raw sewage).
Despite that, they’re pretty pictures. They’re also pretty much all that Marville was known for, before this show.
Curated by associate curator of photographs Sarah Kennel, “Charles Marville” attempts to place the Old Paris Album in the full context of Marville’s photographic career, which also included a few portraits, pioneering cloud studies and travel photos, as well as images shot during and after the reconstruction of Paris. (One entire gallery focuses on examples of such modern urban amenities as public urinals and gas lamps, introduced during what became known as the “Haussmannization” of the city.)
The show also marks a correction to our understanding of who Marville was. Kennel’s research, conducted with the assistance of independent researcher Daniel Catan, reveals “Marville” to be a pseudonym for Charles-Francois Bossu, an illustrator and photographer who, by the age of 18, had abandoned his birth name (which means “hunchback” in French) after having been bullied in school for his short stature.
The new moniker, which seems to conflate the French words for marvel (“merveille”) and city (“ville”), feels appropriate. There’s a sense of awe and wonder to many of the images in the show. Two early works, depicting a soft-focus Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Quai du Louvre in the snow, are especially lovely.
For the most part, though, “Charles Marville” depicts a city either slated for demolition, in the midst of demolition or having been reborn. Several images show the outer arrondissements, or administrative districts, of Paris — former suburbs, effectively — that were incorporated into the city’s new limits during Haussmann’s reorganization. Not only do they not look particularly Parisian, they don’t look especially urban, either.
And this, essentially, is what makes Marville less a photographer of the old world than of the new one. To be sure, he’s still best known for his Old Paris Album. But what makes him modern isn’t a single subject but his overarching sensibility, what Kennel calls his eye for a place “under the pressure of change.”
Marville was, for a time, designated the official photographer of Paris, thus the show’s title. He documented the city over three decades, in the throes of great upheaval. Taken as a body, his photographs mark the early stirrings of the modernist appetite for destruction.
It’s a taste whose full flowering will likely be showcased in the forthcoming Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.”
Yes, there’s a certain sentimentality to some of some of Marville’s pictures — a nostalgia, if you will. But is that his emotion or ours? “Charles Marville” shows a photographer looking at a world in transition with the clearest — and driest — of eyes.
Many of Charles Marville’s photos take advantage of what was then the new technique of wet-plate collodion photography, which allowed for shorter exposure times and richer detail. That clarity is apparent both in a grand bird’s-eye view of a spire of Notre Dame Cathedral, taken about 1859 or 1860, and in a humbler 1876 shot of a street kiosk plastered with posters. You can almost feel the texture of the weathered paper.
But as much of an improvement as it was, the new technique still involved exposure times of three to 15 seconds. Kiosks and cathedrals don’t move; people do, causing some blurred movement. If you look closely, you can see shadowy, almost ghostlike figures in some of Marville’s shots. Some, featuring parked buggies, reveal horses’ legs that just won’t keep still. An 1874 view of the interior of Les Halles Centrales, a large, covered marketplace, features a cloud of what looks like dark smoke drifting across the bottom of the frame. It’s people.
Many other exterior shots depict a Paris that seems strangely deserted, as if in a sci-fi film set after a zombie apocalypse. It’s not because Marville wanted his scenes devoid of people. It’s just that they were moving too fast for his camera to “see” them.
— Michael O’Sullivan