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Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris - After the Fact

I don’t want to make a habit of acknowledging exhibits that have passed from our sight, but I would like to make an exception with Charles Marville whose portfolio of a Paris that was passing out of existence as he worked is a documentary creation that both transcends and perfectly fulfills its purpose.

Marville’s photography brings Atget to mind, but only because of both men’s attachment to the more ephemeral aspects of the city they learned to love, each in their different ways, as assigned interpreters. Atget was a much younger man for whom photography was an established technology, as well as an emerging profession. Marville took up photography in its infancy and helped, as he mastered its quirky mechanics, to legitimize it. In 1850, when he began, nobody was making claims about photography’s threat to painting - though they would soon enough.

I apologize for the perversity of writing about something that is physically out of reach. (It closed on January 5th.) Yet Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris was significant enough to justify the afterthought I wish to impose, for the first time, on such readers as I have, over the slog of six years’ time, accumulated. There is also a book, which I’ll say a little more about anon.

Our own tradition of documentary photography has been so thoroughly assimilated that it needs no introduction. Photographers like Berenice Abbott, who were charged with the almost impossible task of creating emblematic images of New York City, might be considered the mothers/fathers of all documentarians. In their wake, an eager multitude scattered in all directions, creating similar portfolios for the WPA – though, sometimes, as independent projects. The Depression years spawned some of our most iconic imagery: Lewis Hine’s skyscraper acrobats; Dorothea Lange’s mother-of-the-prairie, wizened way beyond her years; the street-life of Paul Strand; Helen Levitt’s indomitable citizens, who probably have less moxie than they’re trying to project. Martin Lewis’s etchings fill in the blanks while Edward Hopper’s streetscapes show us that places that teem with activity are essentially lonely.

Marville came to photography at a time when his native city was in the process of re-making itself. On Louis-Philippe’s behest, and with Baron Haussmann’s vision of a city of wide boulevards and monumental buildings, the Paris of Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac was not swept away, but it was sweepingly diminished. In an attempt to create a more sanitized city, Haussmann cleared hundreds of city blocks whose provincial character no longer suited a world capital that would become a showplace in years to come. Haussmann wanted right angles and hospital corners. He wanted to get rid of the seamy and the strange. He was clearly repelled by the medieval squalor of a city where dead horses were commonplace; tanneries stank up adjacent neighborhoods; and a riot of words and images disfigured buildings that leaned against each other. His vision was, however, rooted in an aesthetic consciousness – which could not be said of our urban renewal, which swept away without re-planting. Or built a highway where a parish church and thriving neighborhood had been seized by the law of Eminent Domain.

Into this ferment came Charles Marville with a technique that had cut its teeth on more conventional subjects, but had bided its time constructively. When Haussmann’s picks and shovels began, Marville was ready to chronicle them.

And what a chronicle he made! Some of his photographs suggest a nod to Charles Meryon, Paris’ most macabre interpreter, who was in love with the city’s majesty – even as long shadows fell across its busy streets and dead bodies were being transported from hospital to graveyard. Meryon’s Paris showed the City of Light dragging behind a hearse; staring, in the company of a gargoyle, into the warrens of Vieux Paris; dumbstruck with grandeur, yet worrying about the rent.

Marville’s Paris is more practical, yet its poetry is always hovering around an iron gate, a splendid lamp-post, a rough-and-tumble pissoir. His Paris resonates with footfalls that have just skimmed along the cobblestones; marketplaces without any produce; yellow-stone facades the sun has faded for centuries. He speaks of hushed courtyards; dilapidated art-studios; faded grandeur that cannot, and will not, be saved. He is at once elegiac and accepting. He knows what he photographs has been slated for destruction, yet takes pleasure, not only in the act of seeing it for the last time, but photographing it for ages to come.

No photographer has designed more effective street-scenes and few painters have been able to articulate mass and the miniscule; strength and delicacy, now and always, with the unassuming grace Charles Marville brought to every nook and cranny of a place he came to love so well.

His Piranesian meditations on destruction versus regeneration; change and its sometime-adversary, rebirth were new to photography. As far as I know, he was the first photographer to document the wholesale revitalization of a place that needed to be knocked down before it could get on its feet again. What the Impressionists painted was made possible by Haussmann, but Marville was there to show us what would have hampered our view of the Opera. (I prefer pre-Haussmann Paris in this regard.) He also shows us the effects of war. During the Siege of Paris, a great many public buildings, including the Hotel de Ville, were damaged or destroyed. Marville gives us the latter structure as a kind of “proud, but bowed” remnant of the horrors of invasion. It is clear, in Marville’s rendering, that the shells that tore through its façade kept going; that the fires that gutted it could not be put out; and that there might not be enough to save.

Marville was perfectly suited to the task to which he was assigned, yet he made it his own.

Let me close by, once again, apologizing for neglecting this exhibit while it was actually hanging. Yet, for reasons I may never articulate, I wanted to talk about it after the fact. Yet the book remains and I’d heartily recommend it. (See the link below.)

I would also, in a general sense, urge my fellow Washingtonians to regard their own city as a place that has always been under siege. And while its 19th-century fabric is visible and its height restrictions have been fortunately maintained, it is a graveyard of intentions, good and bad. It has been mined for its property values. And it has been misused by developers. The K Street of the 1890’s is as inconceivable as a Grecian temple. As is the Pennslyvania Avenue that existed before the Federal Triangle. Washington was designed by a master, but the master plan has been taxed and traduced, over the years, by ill-conceived expansions and wholesale slaughter. Marville’s Paris might be seen as the cautionary tale we never listened to – or heard, like a warning shot, from afar. Marville wanted us to know what we’ve lost, possibly as a means to motivate us to preserve the best of what is left. We are beginning to learn this lesson in DC and I hope that those who are re-shaping the city are mindful of what it cannot replace, rebuild, or re-imagine.

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