17 April 2014

The Photographer of Paris

"Passage Saint-Benoît (sixth arrondissement)" Charles Marville (1864-67)

“Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris,” an exhibit currently on display at the Met, allows visitors a glimpse of a forgotten Paris, one before planning and grand design turned it into the City of Lights that we know today, and a chance to discover the work of the photographer who captured it all.

In 1862, Charles Marville was made the official photographer of Paris, tasked by Napoleon III’s urban planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, to document the enormous renovation plans for the city of Paris. Marville made roughly 425 images of areas of the city that were slated for demolition as well as of the new construction taking place. Some of these images, collectively known as the Album du Vieux Paris, are included in the exhibit along with other works from Marville's career. 

Born Charles Bossu in 1813, he changed his unfortunate last name (which means hunchback in French) to the more pleasant Marville as a young man and went to work as an illustrator. Around 1850, he took up the fairly new medium of photography and travelled throughout France, Germany, and Italy photographing natural settings and architecture. Earning a reputation as a photographer of architecture, he was made photographer to the Louvre before being asked to document the newly created Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement, one of the earliest projects in the renovation plans for Paris.

Napoleon III had a vision of a grander, more modern Paris that would ease some of the burdens of the crowded city. To fulfill his plans, people and businesses were evicted and whole streets were torn down and replaced with wide boulevards and newer buildings of a similar size and design. The Gare de Lyon and the Gare du Nord were built at this time as was the magnificent Paris Opera; four major parks were created and existing ones were renovated; and water and sanitation systems were revamped, giving the citizens of Paris better living conditions. 

"Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche (from the Rue de la Huchette)" Charles Marville (ca. 1868)

"Colonne-affiches pour les Théâtres, menuiserie, fonte et zinc (Cie Morris)" Charles Marville (1876)

In the exhibit, you see the massive new opera house rising, Les Halles with its shiny glass ceiling, and the items that were to help the citizens and modernize the city—20,000 gas lights, public urinals, and those iconic Morris columns covered with advertisements. 

Unlike Brassaï, who famously roamed the streets of Paris at night with his camera, Marville worked mainly in the early morning (probably due to the exposure time needed for his images) so most of the photographs are void of people. We see deserted streets, a lone gaslight, empty parks. Occasionally a person will make an appearance, usually  looking away from the camera in a pose that was probably dictated by the photographer. 

The photos that are the most interesting in the exhibit are the before shots, the images of the places that ended up on the chopping block. These show a dirtier Paris, a medieval Paris that at times resembles a small village more than a European capital. Among these are images of various passageways that hint of mystery, beckoning the viewer to walk down them and see what's on the other side (you get the feeling that Marville was drawn to these as well). The one that I chose as my favourite was because of its name: the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche (the fishing cat street), the narrowest street in the city, which luckily survived destruction.

Not all of the images in the exhibit are of the renovations. Though he rarely made portraits, there are some unusual ones of his assistant, Charles Delahaye, looking dark and brooding and even a few self-portraits of the photographer himself. There is also a series of images of the rooftops of Notre Dame including the various animals that decorate the top of the cathedral (it's not just gargoyles up there).

And then there are his pioneering cloud studies. In the early days of photography, clouds were difficult to capture and photographers often took to erasing them from the images all together. In 1855, Marville successfully made a series of cloud images from the roof of his studio using the new collodion negative process. In addition to being quite striking, they serve as a document of a skyline that would soon be altered. Marville, it seems, was already the photographer of Paris.

"Charles Marville" Photographer of Paris" is at the Met through May 4, 2014. For information, visit here.

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