“Charles Marville, Photographer of Paris” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened Jan. 29, displays a carefully curated assemblage of around 100 of his photographs. Marking the bicentennial of Marville’s birth, the exhibition celebrates the photographer’s career from his landscape and sky studies in the early 1850s to his visual chronicling of the city’s transformation.
Paris as we know it is a grand metropolis—it is the city with broad boulevards and a multitude of bustling cafés that flank them. Set on the banks of the Seine, it is the cradle of romanticism and refinement with an urban landscape as picturesque as its lush parks. But the “City of Light” in our collective imaginations is a deliberate reconstruction, the result of an urban modernization project that transformed what was formerly a crumbling medieval city. With narrow streets brimming with people, disease, and threat of rebellion, Napoleon III set out to create Europe’s pre-eminent modern city in the latter half of the 19th century. He tasked the Seine prefect, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, with the large-scale undertaking, and commissioned fledgling photographer Charles Marville to document the entire process.
Marville is now regarded as one of the most important photographers of 19th-century Paris, and the Met is inviting viewers to discover the man behind the changing metropolis, once only known in circles of photography aficionados and historians. His prints, which remain in pristine condition, display both the distinct sensibility of a photographer’s growth as a modern artist and the city’s understanding of its new identity in its revamped, urban medium.
Marville “had an exquisite understanding of the patina of the city,” curator of photographs Sarah Kennel said. “He captured the city during its birth pangs of modernity.”
Marville’s photographs boast his unerring ability to convey light and space. The three-room exhibit mounts his mastery in sepia, evoking the immense moral and psychological anxiety of a city and people on the brink of change.
One of the exhibit’s rooms is dedicated to Marville’s “Old Paris” album. These photographs appear as the haunting vestige of the city, bearing memories of the streets and buildings as they had existed for centuries. But with his large-format 8-by-10 camera, Marville not only preserved Paris’ historical past, but simultaneously looked forward, paving its reinvention with his lens. In his photograph of Rue Estienne from Rue Boucher, Marville documents a neighborhood already in the midst of gentrification: The derelict buildings that line the street are being torn down one by one.
From the photos, one can see that his raison d’être became the storytelling of Paris’ urban renaissance. Walking through the exhibit creates the sense that viewers are strolling close behind Marville, and experiencing the simultaneous duality of destruction and creation. Visitors feel the disembowelment of the old streets and edifices just as they delight in the propping up of Paris’ very first gas lamps, boulevards, and shopping arcades with him. It is through these photographs that viewers are able to travel through time and witness the transformations that one of the great capitals of the world underwent in the 19th century.