CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Glimpsing a Lost Paris, Before Gentrification
Charles Marville’s Pictures Show What Was Destroyed
You might almost think of Charles Marville, the 19th-century photographer, as akin to the guys who drive around mapping streets for Google. He was a hired hand, an illustrator turned photographer near the dawn of the medium. Paris officials enlisted him to document, among other things, new parks and squares but also the streets, shops and tenements scheduled for demolition — to make, in essence, a historical record of a city soon to be lost.
That was the Paris of Victor Hugo and “Les Misérables,” which Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Napoleon III’s planning czar, was sweeping away to make room for the glittery, bourgeois metropolis that tourists love. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a great show of Marville’s photographs from back then, when luxury apartment buildings were replacing old shops and homes, and many working people could no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods.
Marville was a man for our time.
His project was very French. Outside Paris, there’s a museum dedicated to a banker and philanthropist named Albert Kahn, who, not long after the turn of the last century, realized the world was changing irrevocably, and that many societies and places faced extinction. Until he lost a bundle during the Depression, Kahn dispatched photographers with color film, something new at the time, to the four corners of the globe to compile what he came to call his Archives of the Planet, a celebration of life in all its variety and, in retrospect, an anthology of loss.
Marville’s ambit wasn’t quite so grand; it was a single city, and he seems to have never publicly uttered a peep about its transformation.
Still, his photographs speak across the ages. Clear, cool and rigorous — a few almost seem like Mondrians in their geometry — they extract all sorts of humanity from the chaos and cramped quarters, the nooks and crannies, the mismatched rooflines and patched-up, stained masonry buildings plastered with peeling posters and fading advertisements that today seem so picturesque and full of life but that drove Haussmann nuts.
Haussmann saw in those areas only squalor, congestion and sickness, the cures for which were new plazas and pissoirs, kiosks and gas lamps, cultural palaces and apartment buildings, built along straight boulevards that bulldozed through old neighborhoods to improve circulation, culminating in monuments. The sidewalks and avenues had to be broad enough to accommodate cafe tables and the two-horse barouches of the industrialists and socialites moving into those apartment buildings.
An architecturally harmonious capital rose from the rubble, a city of spectacle, built for a new, modern economy, but homogeneous and no longer welcoming to many of the poor souls who had helped make the place run and had always been deep in its cultural lifeblood.
You don’t see many of these people in Marville’s pictures. To cope with the state of cameras at that time, his photographs were mostly made in the early morning, when the streets were empty. Even so, it’s hard to miss the evidence of lives lived in the cobblestones and tattered storefronts.
“So much information is contained in that split-second burst of photons,” the historian Graham Robb wrote about a classic Marville photo of the Place Saint-André-des-Arts. “If the glass plate survived a holocaust and lay buried under rubble for centuries in a leather satchel, there would be enough to compile a small, speculative encyclopedia of Paris in the late second millennium.”
I wonder, here in the early third, whether photographers are now out and about, in the spirit of Marville, documenting 57th Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and East Harlem, Willets Point, Long Island City and Hell’s Kitchen. Big cities change. That’s urban life. But the best cities don’t leave the vulnerable behind. Some 20,000 working poor were said to have lost their homes on the Île de la Cité when Haussmann’s renewal forced them out. Centuries-old tanneries along the Bièvre — the impoverished “faubourg of misery,” as it was called, but a community rich in history and pride — got the boot, too. French writers, Hugo among them, compared the new Paris to Babylon, a fallen city. A raft of French literature predicted a flood, Paris sinking into an abyss. Loss was in the air. War with Germany led to a revolt, violently crushed. Haussmann went back to work afterward. A hill called the Butte des Moulins, a working class warren, was leveled to give patrons of the city’s new opera house breathing room and a better vista.
All these years later, it’s easy to forget the criminal gangs cleared from the Île de la Cité, the sewage-filled gutters and filthy water drawn from barrels that spread misery and disease across Paris. In retrospect, Haussmann’s redevelopment produced wealth and a miracle of well-proportioned, grand and gracious public spaces, a cosmopolitan model of light and air — on which many displaced Parisians were now compelled to gaze from afar.
Marville photographed a few of their new homes on the city’s outskirts, like the fetid shantytown at the rue Champlain. In the foreground sprawls a formless mess of shacks and mud. A boy sits alone on a hill, staring into the distance, where Haussmann’s pristine Paris rises, white and remote, like an apparition.