The life of French photographer Charles Marville, the subject of a retrospective currently at the Metropolitan Museum, comes down to us hazy in its contours. Born Charles-François Bossu in 1813 to a family of artisans and tradesmen, Marville rid himself of “Bossu” (hunchback) after being teased about it at school, but the import of his chosen pseudonym is unknown. His lifelong partner was called “Madame Marville” but, whatever the reason, the couple never married. He enjoyed the kind of success that was always shadowed by obscurity: his photographs, amply featured in various Universal Expositions in Europe and America, were viewed by thousands, but usually without him being credited. When he died in 1879, though he had received prestigious commissions from the city of Paris and occasional critical acclaim, not a single obituary was published in the Parisian press.
In the absence of a fuller biographical record it is tempting to see Marville as a novelistic figure, a scrappy Balzacian striver who, failing as a young painter to make headway in the necessary academic channels, turned first to illustration and then, in 1850, to the nascent medium of photography. His abandonment shortly thereafter of what had been a viable career as an illustrator suggests a conversion experience, an almost immediate embrace of photography as his true calling. Lacking the independent means of such gentleman pioneers in photography as William Henry Fox Talbot and Gustave Le Grey, Marville always had to be cagey in seizing opportunities, and his entrepreneurial spirit shows itself in his development of a portable case for glass negatives and the patenting (with a collaborator) of a stereoscopic camera. But quite a few of his early photographs—self-portraits, several pictures of his striking, wild-haired assistant Charles Delahaye, a glimpse of his companion Jeanne-Louise Leuba and her sister framed by a window adorned with vines—exert a charm that conveys not so much the drive of a man capitalizing on revolutionary technology but rather the focused enchantment of an artist both at work and at play.
Along with the aestheticism of Marville’s initial efforts there soon emerged an experimental impulse, in the sense of his returning almost obsessively to a subject to grasp it in manifold iterations. Later his gift for serial form would flourish in his photographs of the modern accoutrements of Parisian street life—lampposts, kiosks, public urinals—but his preoccupation with theme and variation extends back to the mid-1850s and the group of cloud studies he made at his seventh-arrondissement apartment on the rue Saint-Dominique. Many are structured on the interplay between the variable sky and the less evanescent skyline, gathering itself around the dome of the Invalides. In the darker, moodier versions of the scene this unmistakable landmark announces itself as if it were a kind of shorthand for the metropolis as a whole, a glyph to stand in for the teeming urban life not visible in the image.
The extent to which Marville’s later photographs of Paris make urban life “invisible” has been a prominent question since his work was rescued from oblivion by two exhibitions in Paris in the early 1980s. With regard to his best-known images—above all those of his commission to document the “Old Paris” soon to be annihilated by Baron Haussmann’s massive urban-renewal project—the artist has sometimes been cast as a willing accomplice to the displacement and hardship visited upon so many marginalized Parisians of his time, and even as a propagandist, since pictures of dirty streets could be aligned with the public-health justifications made for razing neighborhoods. Marville was merely “Haussmann’s man,” as one critic bluntly put it in 1981. Photography historian Shelley Rice, in her Parisian Views (1997), has endorsed this judgment, finding Marville’s street scenes to be repetitious and “clinical,” evidence of the photographer’s “passivity” toward Haussmann’s triumphalist remaking of the city. In her view, this is history told by the winners, even before history is made: “Marville’s Paris was dead before Haussmann got to it.”
Much of what Rice is responding to is the undeniably static quality of Marville’s images and their dearth of human figures: so often we are peering into a depopulated world, eerie and still. The people who do appear in these street scenes either are blurred and ghostly or are captured in expectant poses, at rest if not quite relaxed. In creating photographs meant for the archives, Marville used long exposure times that accorded with the commission’s aim to present as much information as possible about the layout and architecture of the areas slated for demolition (and indeed, medievalists today consult these photographs). Such a process precludes what we’ve come to know as “street photography,” and, in fact, results in its obverse: renderings of city life shorn of incident, its tempo slowed to a fraction of its usual pace. As exhibition curator Sarah Kennel observes in her superb catalogue essay, the details that emerge in a particular image “slow us down and ask that we pay attention to this place before we leave it.”
This inherent slowness is what makes these images richer and more powerful than if they were simply documentary adjuncts to the swift and ruthless transformation of Paris under Napoleon III. Far from being forensic transcriptions of Haussmann’s fait accompli, Marville’s Old Paris photographs reveal the ghosts in the machine of nineteenth-century progress. The human presence is dissolved and dispersed into the material of communal life, its paving stones and shutters and doorways; if we encounter people in these images, we see them primarily as people, rather than as social types or anecdotal figures. They can be read as expressing an inalienable humanity rather than being instances of a malleable populace subject to the force and caprice of the state. I’d be careful not to overstate the case—Marville can seem quite taken with some of the new forms on the city’s streets and boulevards, as in the approximately ninety photographs he took of gas lamps, which, like the camera itself, is a modern means of manipulating light and putting it to use. What comes through in his Paris photographs is a complex ambivalence, a mixture of approbation and regret at the pace and extent of change that may well strike a chord with the twenty-first-century New Yorkers who attend the show at the Met.
Marville’s own views are difficult to glean from the scant historical record. He appears to have been combative and difficult; one letter refers to him as “long-winded.” But among the revelations of the exhibition is the series of late photographs of scenes that show Marville in sympathetic engagement with the periphery of the city—a second city, estranged from the grandeur and pomp of the inner arrondissements. In one photograph, taken near the entrance of a quarry, two bare trees loom over a barren stretch of the rue d’Hautpoul in the nineteenth arrondissement, anchoring a scene that could plausibly be the stage set for a Beckett play. In another, a boy casts his gaze over the ramshackle favela that has sprouted up on either side of the rue Champlain, little wider than a footpath. As with the narrow streets of Old Paris, it is impossible to see this makeshift settlement without the awareness that it is destined to be swept away. In these images, created a year or so before Marville’s death, we see the man who had been praised for his “administrative views” voicing a desolate poetry, found among the cast-off remnants of the capital of the nineteenth century.
Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 4.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!