Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2015
Sarah Kennel, ed. Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris Exh. cat. Washington, DC and Chicago: National Gallery of Art, Washington and University of Chicago Press, 2013. 280 pp.; 110 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth (9780226092782)
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, September 29, 2013‒January 5, 2014; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 27‒May 4, 2014; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 15–September 14, 2014
Charles Marville. Rue Estienne from the rue Boucher (First Arrondissement) (1862–65). Albumen silver print from glass negative. 34.3 x 27.1 cm (13 1/2 x 10 11/16 in.). Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Kravis Gift, 2005. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2005.100.358).

With a decade of solo exhibitions devoted to the work of nineteenth-century photographers Édouard Baldus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), Gustave Le Gray (Bibliothèque nationale de France and J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), and Roger Fenton (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), French and American museums succeeded in demonstrating that a focus on individual oeuvre, rather than period style, lent some much needed scholarly substance to the early history of photography. Given his significance to the medium’s history, it is a mystery as to why a similarly ambitious monograph on Charles Marville (1813–1879) had not been published until now. Curator Sarah Kennel’s Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris greatly enhances our understanding of early photography in France, and helps flesh out one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of photography. Best known for his documentary views of old streets in Paris just prior to their renovation under the urban policies of Haussmannization (named after Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine from 1853 until 1870), Marville’s efforts to record the present before it was ripped away to the past offers contemporary viewers a chance to reflect on the dawn of urban modernity in the age of private capital. Beyond giving a clearer picture of Marville as a working artist, the exhibition also tacitly lays out a crucial line of inquiry. What is lost in the constant revolutionizing of space that is so basic to the modern city? Do the benefits outweigh the losses? And what can Marville’s photographs, seen collectively as an oeuvre, help us understand about the experience of urban transformation, both historically and aesthetically?

Born Charles-François Bossu—the last name meaning “hunchback”—he changed his name to Marville at age eighteen and pursued a career in illustration before turning to photography at thirty-seven. The three special exhibition galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art display Marville’s career in sequence and effectively demarcate his work into early, mid, and late phases. This segmentation tends to highlight how his most important series—views of city streets slated for demolition—marked a bold departure from his self-consciously artistic early work. Marville took up photography around 1850 during the era of the paper negative and salt print, a negative-positive technique known for its suppression of detail and the fibrous surface of the paper support. He became a regular contributor to albums for the photographic publisher Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, who courted an audience of artists and amateurs with albums containing tipped-in photographs of monuments, genre scenes, and works of art. Several pleasant surprises are found in the small first gallery, including portraits of Marville’s career-long assistant, Charles Delahaye. Delahaye’s wild, dark hair and boyish features make his performance as artist-dreamer for the lens all the more powerful. The work from this era is indebted to Romanticism, as evidenced by Marville adopting the label “artiste-photographe” in an 1852 business directory, although this was, in part, a canny move to establish a paying audience for photography.

Unlike his contemporary Gustave Le Gray, Marville did not participate as much in artistic or professional photographic societies originating in 1850s Paris. Rather, he left art and commerce for a position in city government. To punctuate Marville’s upward move, the exhibition’s largest, second space includes his luxe studio self-portrait from 1861. Here, Marville projects his belonging to France’s elite, appearing as a well-regarded bourgeois and sporting a facsimile of Emperor Napoleon III’s trademark goatee. The security and standing that came with his post pulled Marville out of the veritable ocean of middling photographers competing for the public’s attention.

In 1858, Marville was charged with documenting the newly minted Bois de Boulogne, a public park located on the western edge of Paris. A stark difference in subject matter (the new rather than the old), technical practice (the exactitude of glass as opposed to the softness of paper), and aesthetic preoccupation (spatial definition instead of atmospheric perspective) separates the work displayed in the first gallery from the remainder of the exhibition. In the catalogue, Peter Barberie presents a convincing case for the project’s significance, not only to Marville’s career but also to the history of the photographic series as a specific vehicle of expression. The album’s views—displayed as separate works on the wall as well as bound together and showcased within book cases—capture the awkward intermingling of nature and culture represented by the city park. Man-made rapids and ponds are surrounded by ancient trees, and well-manicured paths edged with squat iron curbs cut through the grounds; we are witness to the birth of an icon of modern leisure. Marville’s photographs portray the park just as its designers intended—as a fundamentally urban experience of nature.

Once he assumed in 1862 the title of Photographer of the City of Paris, Marville commenced his most significant body of work. In one of the few surviving related documents, Marville describes the catalogue as “425 views of Old Paris,” which he made between 1862 and 1868. The work marks a quite literal start to street photography, showing the streets and surrounding buildings set for demolition to make way for Haussmann’s redesigned vistas and boulevards. At the Metropolitan, curators included views of Paris before and after Marville in the adjacent Howard Gilman Gallery for comparison. Unlike the Leica-wielding snap-shooters of interwar Paris, however, Marville photographed slowly and deliberately so as not to interrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic in the winding, Gothic streets mostly on the city’s Left Bank. Long exposure was far from uncommon for architectural photographers of the day; in fact, working with either wet or dry collodion on large glass required it. Some images feature the contours of sideline gawkers who stood in one place for most of the estimated three to fifteen seconds-long exposure. These were mostly residents and local shopkeepers curious about the cameraman and his wares set up in the middle of the street. As collateral details, these women and men looking back at the lens are likely unaware of Marville’s participation in their inevitable displacement. Working under official orders, Marville was ostensibly “Haussmann’s advance man,” as Shelley Rice succinctly describes the artist’s political entanglements in Parisian Views (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

Marville shows us the before, during, and after of Haussmannization, whose effects are better known in art-historical scholarship as the social background to the avant-garde experiments of the Impressionists. The painters seemed to lament the loss of an earlier, more traditional Paris, so it raises the question of whether photographers shared this sentiment. Visitors to the exhibition might find parallels between Marville’s Paris and less dramatic kinds of urban shifts in today’s world, particularly gentrification. With this in mind, what is the message about Marville today? Is he an artist first and a government lackey second, or vice versa? Was he an aspirant creative bourgeois whose personal life lay outside of cultural norms (he and his lifelong partner Jeanne-Louise Leuba never married) or a dutiful documentarian for the city’s elite? Rather than belabor his modernist bona fides through formal analysis, the exhibition’s organizers instead frame Marville first and foremost as an author of documents—ones made with a great deal of ingenuity in recording the built environment at a particular moment in history. These photographs exhibit a profound acuity in composing space inside the camera in order to capture the most data possible, an approach like the “archive style” analyzed in Robin Kelsey’s book Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850–1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) (click here for review). A similar take befits an analysis of Marville’s oeuvre, as he was responsible for defining his own functional photography through the vicissitudes of practice, likely with relatively scant instructions or oversight from his superiors.

The body of work that secured Marville’s historical reputation makes up less than a third of the material listed in the exhibition catalogue. Surprisingly, Marville’s Old Paris does not feel like the gem of his career anymore. Rather, the exhibition attempts to expand and deepen our understanding of his oeuvre as a whole. Those familiar with his work in previous exhibitions, publications, and web-based media may be disappointed to find his proto-modernist experiments with point of view and composition are underrepresented here. The curatorial decision to flesh out the context and conventions of a particular aesthetic (i.e., the street as an empty stage) tends to disregard the other radical formal departures that make for some of the most intriguing aspects of Marville’s Old Paris work. Only a few photographs from this period break from formula, the most striking of which is his uncharacteristic frontal view of sculptural relief decorating the Hôtel Colbert. (This image also brings to mind the relative lack of examples of Marville’s photographs of artworks; the catalogue could have better situated his importance to the history of visual documentation of art, since he was named the first official photographer to the Louvre.)

As the third and final space shows, the rest of the 1870s saw Marville taking on a variety of new commissions and finding new audiences via popular exhibitions. Around 1877, he photographed the Avenue de l’Opéra under construction, this time recording the presence of construction workers and passersby who acknowledged the camera. This work hung alongside his earlier views of the city in the Paris Pavilion of the 1878 Universal Exhibition, where his photographs impressed upon international audiences the unprecedented size and scope of Haussmannization in the host city. Another significant body of work from his last decade featured newly installed street furniture, including gas lamps, street vendor stalls, advertising spaces, and even public urinals. Chosen for various international exhibitions by Haussmann’s successor, Adolphe Alphand, these photographs of fixtures on an almost human scale are the closest Marville came to portraiture. His photograph of a gas lamp in the courtyard of the Hôtel de la Marine is a perfect example from the series. The image adheres to rigorous classical principles of composition—distinct zones of space, strong vertical and horizontal axes—to document a modern instrument of public safety. Marville’s composition makes the lamp seem more fastidious than any of the stiff businessmen featured in August Sander’s portraits of German society dating to the 1930s.

The exhibition and Kennel’s catalogue essay close with several photographs of the carrières d’Amérique, stone quarries on the edge of town that later became the fanciful park of Buttes-Chaumont. The photographs show an admixture of shantytowns, stone quarries, and fields of mud strewn with equipment. While these images initially appear to present a very different kind of subject matter, the pervasive orthogonal lines and networked streetlamps are representative of Haussmann’s Paris. These photographs are anxious icons of modern life, offering a glimpse of critical perspective on the changes wrought in Marville’s city.

Essential to the history of photography, Marville’s work inaugurates a tradition of architectural documentary that links him to the empty-stage poetics of Eugène Atget’s fin-de-siècle Paris, as well as to the conceptual rigor of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher’s post-industrial West. The curators don’t have to spell this out for audiences, thankfully, for such significance is on the walls in Marville’s photographs. Not only do his works capture the monumentality of Haussmann’s dream, they also betray the photographer’s creative insight and critical vision in allowing viewers to see what was lost and who was exploited in the process. While the exhibition makes a case for Marville as a great photographer, it also embeds him rightfully in the history of class and urbanization. One hopes that Charles Marville will reinvest scholarship of this era with a new relevance, offering visitors a chance to see how the messy history of a site in transition, illustrated comprehensively in images by a photographic author with a privileged form of access, can help us pierce through the pervasive myths of the modern city. The image of Paris supplied by Marville is both a captivating ideal and a mutable reality, a dialectic that would obliterate the memory of the past were it not for the power of photography as our best, if elegiac, record in the modern era.

Jacob W. Lewis
Visiting Instructor, History of Art and Design, Pratt Institute of Art and Design

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