'Rue Estienne' (1862-65) by Charles Marville
‘Rue Estienne’ (186265)

In Charles Marville’s 1874 photograph of Les Halles, a glass canopy soars above slender struts, like the shed of a great railway station.

With astringent clarity, Marville details the delicate vastness, homing in on moulded iron piers and the battalion of gaslights that keep trade humming after dark. Diffused daylight leaks through the immense archway in the back, and we can even make out the shop signs on the street beyond. But something is wrong: at this brightest, busiest time of day in Paris’s central food market, there are no people.

Instead, a protean mist suffuses the bottom edge of the frame. This seems like an error, a blot on this otherwise perfectly lucid rendering. But look closely and that little patch of fog reveals itself as the trace of human traffic: thousands of people, milling about, leaving only a phantasmal trace on the long exposure.

Other ghosts, too, haunt Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, a seductive survey at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Marville memorialised both the birth of the modern metropolis in the 1850s and 1860s and the medieval city it replaced. As the photos document, Baron Haussmann ripped out medieval streets, eviscerated neighbourhoods, evicted residents, and webbed the capital in ample boulevards.

He installed sewers and public pissoirs, so that the dignified new roadways would never stink. Haussmann (and his hygiene-obsessed sovereign, Napoleon III) wanted Paris made new and clean and modern. The construction of Les Halles was part of that effort: instead of the old chaotic market spilling into the streets, Paris required a well-ventilated, sanitary enclosure, made mostly of air.

Ce sont de vastes parapluies qu’il me faut; rien de plus!” the emperor demanded. (“It’s vast umbrellas that I want; nothing more!”)

This craving for weightless modernity permeates the photographs but so, too, does the heavy past, which lingers in the haze of stone dust, in fetid puddles, shadowed alleyways and cobblestones mounded like dirt beside a grave.

Trained as an illustrator, Marville happened on the new medium in 1850 and embraced it with zeal. He initially indulged in painterly landscapes but quickly discovered his true calling as a clear-eyed purveyor of fact. In 1862, he was appointed Paris’s official photographer and charged with documenting the radical transformation of urban life. He recorded the tattered parts of the city as they waited for their doom, bore witness to the actual wrecking, then inventoried the grand new buildings and boulevards that came to define the city for the 20th century.

Like Eugène Atget a generation later, Marville’s is not a straightforward record. Each winding alleyway and streaked cobblestone contains the tension between realism and poetry. Marville never threw off his predilection for the picturesque; he simply adapted it to grittier contexts. Despite his restraint and exactitude, he brought the physical world in line with his poetic temperament.

Atget unearthed uncanny compounds of animate and inanimate; Marville left wraithlike traces of displacement. Unprecedented numbers of people were being forced from their homes and businesses, and Marville marks the process in mid-rupture. His view of the corner of the Rue du Bac and the Rue St Dominique explodes with signs advertising “moving sales” in shops seized by the government. Across the street, the fleeting spectre of a dog peeps out from the doorway of a tiny café. He’s there and not there – a harbinger of absence. Marville, too, had to give up his studio on the Boulevard St Jacques in 1867. Before leaving, he posed for a valedictory self-portrait, alongside his mistress, his household help, a handful of assistants, and, yes, a dog.

A picture by Charles Marville of a lamppost at the entrance to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
A lamppost at the entrance to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts

Silence enfolds Marville’s Paris, cushioning it from the violence he depicts. We see piles of rubble everywhere. The new opera house, the Palais Garnier, stands like a beacon amid wartime ravages. Imagine the cacophony that must have clanged through these streets: the percussive shudder of sledgehammers, rhythmic booms of falling stone, a motley chorus of whinnying horses. This was urban change on an unprecedented scale, portending the hyped-up pace of the future, and yet in Marville’s photographs it all looks like the hushed aftermath of calamity.

It is difficult, at this distance, to realise how radical the furnishings of modernity really were. The gaslamps he portrayed with monumental precision were the latest in urban street furniture, and they cemented Paris’s reputation as the capital of the 19th century. Eventually, though, every dernier cri becomes a wistful moan. Marville must have sensed the great existential paradox of technology: yesterday’s innovation is tomorrow’s nostalgia.

By 1870, the Second Empire had fallen and the impressionists began to paint the modern tangle of iron and entertainment. Haussmann’s grands boulevards provided the stage-set for what Baudelaire called “the heroism of modern life”. At the new opera house, dandies ogled ballerinas while cavaliers and demimondaines plotted assignations at the new café-concerts. Both Monet and Manet wove grids of metal and glass into their renderings of the Gare St Lazare, and in Caillebotte’s “Le Pont de l’Europe”, a similar latticework zooms queasily into the distance.

Marville is the bridge between periods. While the painters were chasing glitz on bright central streets, he ventured out to the peripheral dead zones where dislocated workers squatted in miserable shacks. The new Paris depended on the illusion of seamless prosperity, which meant pushing poverty to the margins. It became a pearl nestled in a tissue of squalor. Marville celebrates that fact and regrets it at the same time. He traces the arc from deliberate devastation to rubble and rebirth, in scenes peopled only by wisps. They are ghosts of Paris past, murmuring of repressed trauma.

To May 4, metmuseum.org

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