Beginning in the mid-1850s, Paris experienced a grand transformation. At the orders of Napoleon III, old, narrow streets made way for wide boulevards, thousands of gas lamps lit the streets at night, and a host of other public projects thoroughly modernized the city. Charles Marville, a photographer employed by the city, was charged with documenting those changes. “The random, organic city, the city built by successive generations on top of itself, was pushed back and de-emphasized. The standardized city we see today was replaced,” said Jeff Rosenheim, curator of “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris,” now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Marville worked as an illustrator before taking up photography in the 1850s. As he developed his craft, Marville initially used the paper negative process for his photographs, which created a soft, romantic view. Later on, he adopted the glass negative process, which delivered a clearer, more precise view of the world and allowed him to record even the smallest details of a street scene. “Almost immediately he made technically masterful and visually rich images where you can tell the difference between the sidewalk and the facade of the building and the difference between iron work and glass. The paper negative blended those things, but the glass negative defined those differences,” Rosenheim said. “For someone interested in the changing shape of the city, that glass negative transformed the potential of the description of photography.”
Marville understood that the photos were for the purposes of the city’s archives. As a result, Marville’s work varies stylistically from his contemporaries, who were working privately to make a mark in the word of fine arts. “He was well aware that his goal was very specific, which makes the photos attractive to people and contemporary artists. The idea of the archive is a powerful idea in the modern idiom. Many find this way of working appealing, the idea of the city itself as the author rather than the picture-maker—the stylelessness of it,” Rosenheim said.
Marville died largely uncelebrated after he stopped getting commissions. It took nearly a century before his archive was recognized for its historic and artistic value. Now it is widely known as an invaluable record of a city’s urbanization. “In most cases those buildings and those courtyards and those streets he photographed would be destroyed. We not only have pictures of them but we have pictures filled with information,” Rosenheim said.
“Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris” is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 4.