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Cartographer of a Lost World: Charles Marville's Paris

A choice selection of Charles Marville’s photographs, documenting a pre-Haussmann Paris, capture with startling clarity a city on the brink of modernity

‘Haussmann cut immense gaps right through Paris and carried out the most startling operations. His equipment was meagre: the shovel, the pick, the wagon, the trowel, the wheelbarrow … His achievement was truly admirable.’ This encomium was from a writer with his own designs on Paris − Le Corbusier in Urbanisme (1925) − who also observed that Haussmann’s avenues ‘were not based on strict deductions of the science of town planning. The measures he took were of a financial and military character.’

Among the best records of the pre-Haussmann city are the 425 photographs in Charles Marville’s Album du Vieux Paris. There is a choice selection of them in this fine new book, but it gives a fuller picture of Marville’s work and makes him seem surprisingly contemporary − a precursor of several recent trends in photography of architecture and landscape. Forget for a moment the aura of remoteness that inevitably clings to these images, where the streets are yet to be colonised by Starbucks and have been captured by technology that now seems quaint. There is more to this book than nostalgia for a vanished Paris.

Charles Marville was the pseudonym of Charles-François Bossu; like Monsieur Jeanneret he chose to reinvent himself. Born in Paris in 1813 he worked first as an illustrator of books such as Histoire Pittoresque de l’Angleterre and La Seine et ses Bords (the Seine and its banks). He switched to photography in the 1850s, and whether with an eye on the market or purely out of interest, explored a broad range of subjects: cathedrals and monuments; rural scenes; cloud studies; and that favourite haunt of artists, the boulder-strewn forest of Fontainebleau. In 1858 he received his first commission from Paris’s authorities, which was to photograph the renovated Bois de Boulogne − the first of Haussmann’s modernising projects for Emperor Napoleon III.

In his album on the Bois, Marville doesn’t disguise the artifice in the park’s construction − it’s a place of illusions, a manufactured pastoral, where nature is coaxed and coerced and embellished with kiosks and cafés. With its shrewd methodical approach, this album set the tone for Marville’s later commissions.

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Rue de Constantine, showing a glimpse of the shop advertising that reveals the age of Marville’s images

Keen though Haussmann was to eradicate parts of old Paris, he wanted to preserve their memory: ‘The City of Paris must disregard nothing, forget nothing, neglect nothing of its past.’ Hence the need for a visual archive which Marville would satisfy as demolition and construction gathered pace in the 1860s. From comparing Marville’s photographs with maps of Paris pre- and post-Haussmann, one essayist in this book, Françoise Reynaud, shows just how exactly Marville positioned himself when taking his photographs: ‘He must have known which section of street was destined to disappear, which side would be broadened, which intersection would become a square, which buildings would go.’

The value of these records is enhanced by their clarity and depth of field. So much detail is legible, from individual items in a shop window to the sheen of rain on the cobbled street. When Marville embarked on the Bois commission, he began to use large glass plate negatives, which at once improved the quality of his work. Over 100 of his photographs are beautifully reproduced in this book, and they are often quite compelling − for instance, the shots he took of the tanneries along the River Bièvre (perhaps not an inner-city asset) that were soon swept away, and some evocative cul-de-sacs and courtyards.

Given the precision of the photos, we can see just how densely inscribed the city’s surfaces were, not just with the marks of weathering and decay but with a host of advertisements and announcements. A building may be almost masked by words; the streets are peppered with scripts and signs. It’s in this linguistic overlay, so redolent of habitation, that Marville’s images reveal their age − the typography and graphics are so clearly of the past.

Once Haussmann’s percements, the ‘piercings’ for his new boulevards, were under way, Marville set up his camera again, with rubble in the foreground and a fractured townscape behind. The nascent Avenue de l’Opéra could be the work of a tsunami. Marville seems particularly drawn to these scenes of transition: they reappear in his photographs of the quarries that supplied the stone for the city’s new buildings, and in his studies of the city’s outskirts − marginal places like the end of Rue Champlain in the 20th arrondissement, where shacks sit precariously on ravaged ground.

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One of Marville’s delicate, dramatic studies of clouds over Paris, captured from the roof of his studio

It’s this pervasive focus on landscape in the throes of change that makes Marville seem so modern, aligning him with the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s; with such figures as Edward Burtynsky, whose large-scale colour works fill today’s galleries; and with the numerous photographers who of late have found a rich source of subject matter in city margins.

In post-Haussmann Paris the novelty lay in detail not just the city plan. Street furniture took on new forms, and just as Marville had once isolated Gothic sculptures on a cathedral so he now made lamp standards the centre of his compositions. He also turned his camera on the new urinals − those outdoor pissoirs (now gone) that had more sculptural grace than most public art and were of rather more use. But these were the incidentals of the revamped city; the true shock of the new came in Haussmann’s boulevards and avenues, which of course Marville pictured as well. Immobilised on glass, they’re as eerie in their emptiness as de Chirico’s piazzas, and the old city’s humanising inscriptions have gone.

A quick way to see the varied response to these new arteries is to consult one of the dossiers that Walter Benjamin compiled for his unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. Putting Le Corbusier’s comments in perspective are some quotes from a history of Paris that was published a year after Urbanisme: ‘Above all the Paris of the Second Empire is cruelly lacking in beauty … Haussmann lays out an artificial city, like something in Canada or the Far West … Most of his thoroughfares are astonishing architectural intrusions that begin just about anywhere and end up nowhere, while destroying everything in their path; to curve them would have been enough to preserve precious old buildings.’

So what was Marville’s attitude to Haussmann’s changes? He had glimpsed the future: did it fill him with delight or alarm? If Marville ever put his thoughts on record, we don’t hear about them in this book, so are left to make what inferences we can from his copious archive. But glancing again at those photos of empty boulevards, I somehow doubt he was a devotee of ‘progress’, however deftly he recorded it.

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

Authors: Sarah Kennel et al

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Price: £42

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