Charles Marville

Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris

Last November was a municipally-sponsored “Mois de la Photo” in Paris, with about three dozen shows presented at two dozen locations ranging from major museums and private galleries to bookstores and Métro stations. Reasons given for this extraordinary honoring of photography varied, depending on who was speaking. Publicly, Mayor Jacques Chirac sounded a populist note (All Photography to the People!). Privately, one photographer I spoke with took a more skeptical view, pointing out that elections were coming up soon, some sort of glorious public celebration was needed, photography exhibitions were easy to arrange and cheap to insure, etc. Whatever the reasons behind the month, it was well executed and certainly reflected a catholic approach to photography. Yet I found it difficult to separate my response to the photographs from my response to the exhibition spaces they were in, and ultimately, to Paris itself. “Paris is no longer the city of our youth,” said a colleague who spent a lot of time there ten or 15 years ago. Though I had the misfortune to spend my youth elsewhere, I could see that at the very least Paris had ceased to be the 19th-century city Walter Benjamin loved.

Like the city, the photography seemed to be at its best in the 19th-century, and to get weaker the further into the 20th century you moved. Of the two dozen shows I saw, the most memorable was of Charles Marville’s views of the old city before the Haussmann renovations. A precursor of Atget, Marville had an official commission to document parts of the city that were to be pulled down to make way for the modernizations. The old city inspired from Marville a kind of photography that was, if not as emotive as Atget’s, at least as patient, meticulous and complex as his. Marville had an especially keen eye for the ways in which light was baffled in the jerry-built old quarters of the city. A much larger exhibition of 19th-century work that contained some equally remarkable images was held at the Petit Palais. Unfortunately, the show lived up to its title by being mere regards, glimpses that gave the viewer only a very fragmentary idea of the period it covered. Since the show was based on the immense collection of the Bibliothéque Nationale, an impression of incompleteness was perhaps inevitable. But this sense was also heightened by the arbitrary way in which the material was portioned out, as if the viewers were rather simple-minded types who could only be entertained by a genre approach. With the photographs grouped together in such categories as “Monuments,” “Portraits,” “Paysages,” “Nus,” etc., some photographers’ works were scattered through the exhibition, while others got a wall to themselves. And some groupings didn’t seem to make any sense at all. “Nus,” for instance, contained a set of five pictures by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, three of which were of figures fully clothed.

Colin Westerbeck