New York

Charles Marville

French Institute Alliance Française (fi:af)

A hundred and twenty-five years ago, when the Haussmann renovations were under way, one person who was not sorry to see the working class evicted from Paris was Charles Marville. As Maria Morris Hambourg points out in her catalogue introduction, Marville’s motives for undertaking a documentation of the Old Paris that Haussmann was pulling down have long been confused with Eugène Atget’s motives for a similar project four decades later. Marville was not enamored of the old quarters as Atget was, nor do his photographs bathe his subjects in the peerless light of romanticism that Atget was so deft at capturing. Marville believed in the nineteenth-century ideal of Progress that Haussmannization represented. (He was, after all, the official photographer of the Service des Travaux Historiques, whose job was to record, and legitimate, the city’s transformation.) Marville’s plan, which he carried out as irresistibly as Haussmann did his, was to photograph every altered street before its demolition, during it, and after reconstruction.

Nonetheless, most of the photographs comprising this show come from the first phase of the project. They are of the Old Paris, and the very strategies that Marville used to emphasize how cramped and airless the streets were make them look wonderful today. Where the world in Spender’s photographs has the realism of Wigan Pier, that in Marville’s takes on, almost against his will, the romance of Balzac. It’s hard to believe that Marville himself was not seduced at times, for what he recorded was often not only the way that people and commerce were baffled by the old, winding streets, but the magical way that the light was. If we are unclear about Marville’s work and the France of the Second Empire that he represented, it is because we haven’t had enough opportunity to see his work in this country. Drawn from the extensive Marville collection of the Musée Carnavalet, this show, which will travel in the USA after its New York premiere, gives us an excellent chance to better inform ourselves.

Colin Westerbeck