NEW YORK — Most photographs arrest motion. A few sustain stillness. That’s what Charles Marville’s photographs of Paris do. “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris” runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 4.
A great city, with its people and traffic, is a thing of endless energy and variety. With its buildings and other structures, a great city is also a thing of imperturbable solidity. It’s the latter that Marville’s photographs emphasize, endowing Paris with a surpassing sense of calm. Timelessness might be another word for that sense, except that Marville captured the city at a specific moment.
Marville (1813-1879) held the title of official photographer of the city of Paris at a crucial time. This was during the 1860s. Napoleon III had tasked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann with transforming the capital. A city of nooks and crannies, still nearly medieval in many of its quarters, would become a city of boulevards and vistas, spacious and modern. The fact that this would make revolutionary activity far easier to suppress (one man’s vista is another’s field of fire) was by no means an incidental consideration. Haussmann’s program of urban renewal, as we would now call it, was the pursuit of politics by other means. Still, aesthetic concerns played a role, too. It was with that in mind that Marville was appointed to his post. He would document the old Paris, about to disappear, and the new Paris, as it emerged.
Truly, this was a city in transition. The demolition has already begun in some of Marville’s photographs. Alleys and streets have rubble visible in the background. Look closely at “Corner of the rue du Bac and the rue Saint-Dominique” and you can see a sign announcing moving sales.
Photography dates to 1839, and Marville belonged to the first generation of practitioners. There was as yet no standard apprenticeship. He began as an illustrator for books and magazines. This proved excellent training. It gave him an eye for composition. More specifically, it gave him an eye for composition within a relatively limited, rectangular field — the wood blocks he drew on not differing much in size from what he’d see in a view finder. In addition, he had to execute his drawings backward (the printing process reversed them) — not a bad preparation for how a view camera presents an image upside down.
As a photographer, Marville soon won a name for himself with atmospheric views of the city. The sheer artistry of something like “Quai du Louvre in the Snow,” from 1852, is remarkable. The sense of texture and variation in light that Marville obtains are worthy of Alfred Stieglitz. The comparison to Stieglitz has a further dimension. “Equivalents,” Stieglitz’s cloud studies, have a counterpart in Marville’s own photographs of cloud and sky. Two of the most striking incorporate the Parisian skyline. Even looking upward and away, Marville found his eye drawn back to the city. Around the same time he was photographing Gothic cathedrals — Chartres, Reims, Notre Dame — with such a sensitivity to architectural detail that he could have been auditioning for his future post. Or just the future: The way he uses the picture frame to crop a spire of Notre Dame is well ahead of its time.
It wasn’t just the past Marville was photographing. The Bois de Boulogne, as a public park, dates to the 1850s. The marketplace of Les Halles, which seemed all but primeval when demolished in the 1970s, was erected in the 1850s. Marville photographed that, too. Lampposts were a new feature of the city, as were public urinals. Marville lavished no less care on them than he did on those cathedrals.
There are 93 images in the show. So many of them have a casual, uninflected stateliness, a matter-of-fact grandeur. People are rarely seen. In part, that’s for pragmatic reasons (long exposure times). But aesthetic considerations factor in also. Their presence would detract from Marville’s presentation of Paris as solid, enduring, even timeless. People come and go, live and die, but the city stays. Even as it changes, it somehow becomes more itself. This is Paris turning into the Paris we know: an ancien régime city giving way to the City of Light.
There’s a feeling of impersonality to the images — but in a good way. What’s in front of his camera, Paris, matters far more to Marville than what’s behind his camera, himself. This isn’t necessarily a sign of artistic modesty. The man seen in an 1861 self-portrait looks unacquainted with the word deferential. A humble man could not have stood up to the city as Marville did. No, this was simply a recognition on his part of what would serve his art best – no less than what would serve his subject best. In “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow writes of “External life being so mighty, the instruments so huge and terrible, the performances so great, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce a someone who can exist before it. You invent a man who can stand before the terrible appearances.” Marville was such a man.
Granted, Parisian appearances tend not to be terrible. Even the sewer system offers tours. So “Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s-1930s,” which runs alongside the Marville, is as attractive as you might assume. The two shows make for a deeply satisfying tandem.
There are names here you’d expect (Nadar, Atget, Brassaï, Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, and, yes, Marville), as well as names you might not (Fox Talbot, Stieglitz, Edward Steichen). There are views of the Seine, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and no fewer than three of the Eiffel Tower. With usual suspects like these, who needs novelty? Except there’s a good deal of that, too — not least of all a view of Atget’s workroom. Haussmann appointed Marville official photographer of Paris. Posterity has appointed Atget its supreme photographer. Seeing his workroom is a wonderment and feels like a privilege. It’s getting a glimpse of the Plato’s cave of Paris.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.