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The French photographer Charles Marville, who’s only now getting his first U.S. exhibition on the bicentennial of his birth, is primarily known for documenting the transformation of Paris from a medieval city to a modern one, through a series of images of old neighborhoods lost due to urban renewal. But Marville’s career, lasting roughly from 1850 to his death in 1879, also spanned a period of rapid innovation in photography, both technical and artistic.
Marville’s earliest works were salted paper prints made from paper negatives—-soft, high-contrast images not far removed in feeling from the pioneering, somewhat primitive photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot. As photographic technology advanced, Marville shifted to glass negatives that allowed far more visual precision, particularly in the architectural and streetscape images that compose the largest portion of the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective. By the late 1870s, shortly before his death, Marville’s compositions began to presage the more modernist approaches Alfred Stieglitz would pursue just a few years later. (At one point, Marville even experimented with abstracted cloud images, decades before Stieglitz’s famous “equivalents.”)
If Marville’s career traces a continuous arc of transformation, however, what his works mostly lack is a sense of critical-mindedness. This almost certainly has to do with Marville’s position as the official chronicler of Paris’ agency on historic works, which was headed by city planner Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann, the tip of the spear for Emperor Napoleon III’s wholesale changes to the Parisian landscape. While the two leaders’ bold vision for Paris created a world-class metropole, Marville’s images rarely communicate the difficult birth pangs the city experienced, changes that made modern-day gentrification seem like child’s play. The transformation of Paris is best communicated by the term used to describe its construction forays—-“piercings.”
The exhibit’s explanatory material, ably corralled by National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Kennel, makes the visitor aware of the social turbulence going on under Marville’s largely calm and unruffled surfaces. The three- to five-second exposure times contributed to the quietude; people and vehicles moving too fast to be captured sometimes produce ghostly shadows. Still, it’s hard not to speculate that the bigger reason for Marville’s complacent approach was his status as official chronicler and his related commercial interests.
Occasionally we see rubble from construction of the Opera, or tanners posing by a dirty tributary, but there’s no sign of Paris Commune and little of any of the era’s other upheavals. Marville was no crusading Jacob Riis, nor even a Eugene Atget, his successor as chronicler of Paris, who was a classic outsider artist. Marville the establishmentarian focused instead on the quaint past—-cobblestoned streets, wall-painted commercial signs, loaded horse-drawn wagons (above)—-or the spanking new future of carefully choreographed public parks and architectural projects. Sometimes these images were compiled into oversized, lovingly produced volumes that would be fancy and expensive even by today’s standards.
Only at the very end of his career, in the late 1870s, did Marville begin to produce images that could be considered socially conscious—-one of a road project barreling through a neighborhood of modest buildings, and another of a shantytown in the shadow of Paris’ fine urban core. It took Marville decades to reach this point, but maybe advancing age finally gave him perspective, and the freedom to express it.
On view to Jan. 5 at the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.