Raising Paris through the Ruins – Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris at the Met

Years ago I fell in love with black and white photography after seeing Eugene Atget’s photographs of Paris in the early 20th century.

Today I fell in love all over again seeing an even older Paris and even older B&W photographs from the late 19th century. The Charles Marville – Photographer of Paris exhibit at the Met is definitely worth your time.

Born as Charles Francois Bossu (bossu meaing hunchback) he took the pseudonym Charles Marville at the beginning of his career. One can’t help but wonder if this was prescient of his future career as a photographer of Paris – la merveilluse ville. His early photographs were predominantly landscapes that were done for artists and architects who wanted detailed records of their creations and portraits.

In the late 1850s, he was hired by the city of Paris to photograph the new Bois de Boulogne which was part of Napolean III and Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s plan for civic renewal. Following this project, he received another contract from the city. This was to photograph the streets and buildings that were scheduled to be razed. Out went the old and in came new boulevards, parks and public works. Thanks to the 425 photographs taken that Marville called the “Old Paris Album” the Paris of the late 1800s, in all its beauty and squalor, will continue to live on indefinitely.

There is something beautiful, yet ghostly, in many of the images – streets disappear, buildings are destroyed, a river is buried. These were replaced with wide boulevards, uniform architecture, and open public spaces. Rarely are people seen. This was probably due to the long exposure time necessary to complete an image, but the results feel even more haunting.

The last images are of what Hausmann called “street furniture”: kiosks, lampposts and street urinals. The mundane becomes the focus and their simplicity makes these images that much more beautiful. These were the days before digital photography and photoshop and don’t forget that these photographs are about 150 years old. Marville’s talent and technical ability left me in awe.

Don’t forget that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a suggested admission of $25. So, just pay what you wish.



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