The Paris before the Paris we know.
The Paris before the Paris we know.
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston Gets a Rare Look at Old Paris at the MFAH

If you prefer your Paris served with nostalgia sauce, the way Woody Allen dished it up in his movie Midnight in Paris, then the exhibition "Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris," now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, isn't the show for you. True, many of the photos in the show are sepia-toned images of vieux Paris (old Paris) before Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann had their way with the city in the mid-19th ­century but there was no rose tint to the lens in Marville's camera. As the official photographer of Paris, Marville was tasked with documenting the soon-to-be-demolished neighborhoods that were being razed to make room for new development.

Walking into the exhibition is something of an Alice in Wonderland experience. Limited by the technology of his day, Marville's prints are all small. (Enlargement wasn't possible: the size of the negative equaled the size of the print.) Except for one image at the entry of the show. There we're immediately confronted by a huge detail from one of his images, a view down Passage de L'Opera, compelling us to walk up to, even almost through the wall into the Paris of 150 years ago. Part of me wishes I could see all the photographs blown up — but since I can't, as a counterpoint that one giant image makes all the rest, small as they are, more starkly vivid.

Though Marville was an early and prolific photographer of Paris (and other subjects too — but mostly Paris), he's been something of a mystery until now. Recent scholarship by exhibition curator and lead catalog author, Sarah Kennel, has made it possible to tell his story in full for the first time. One key discovery: early on he adopted the pseudonym Marville in place of his family name Bossu, which means hunchback in French. (For those interested in the history of photography, in Paris, or just in a good story that's well told, the catalog that accompanies the exhibition is excellent.)


"Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris"

Through September 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300,

Marville started his career as a fairly successful maker of prints to illustrate journals and newspapers. With a sharp eye for monetizing his skills, he saw the potential of photography for replacing engraving and other print-making techniques as the primary way to illustrate publications. He soon became one of the most accomplished documentary photographers of his era. As noted by one catalog author, he "rarely presented his photographs as works of art." For Marville, photography was a livelihood. But to our eyes, and probably even to his in some of his photographs, art crept in.

The nearly 100 photos that make up the exhibit aren't romantic images of the City Of Light we all dream of visiting on vacation. Rather they are ominous images of doomed streets about to be destroyed. The city would be transformed into the stately, honey-hued Paris we love, but when these photographs were taken that city existed only as a dream — the destruction had still to be endured.

They are also photographs of streets eerily devoid of humans. In part this is a result of the photographic technology of the day. Long exposure times meant that even minimal motion was too much. In some of the images — Interior of Les Halles Centrales is a prime example — a ghostly haze of human activity remains in what initially seems to be an uninhabited building. Most of the few humans who do appear are stark still beside factory-polluted streams, atop utilitarian horse carts or surrounded by demolition rubble.

But the people weren't the point. Marville had been commissioned to record the look of Paris, not the life of it. In fact, the people who inhabited those streets were irrelevant — obstacles to be displaced or crushed as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed mid-19th-­century Paris into the first and most modern city, as envisioned by Emperor Napoleon III as a stage for his imperial grandeur.

Tens of thousands of Parisians were forced from their homes and businesses to make way for the new Paris we now love so dreamily. The transformation was an awe-inspiring (and awful) imposition of will by Napoleon III — a raw exercise of power that even the first, great Napoleon wasn't able to exert on the city. We know what would come; they didn't. It's that uncertainty, that tension that gives the photographs much of their haunting power.

Those of us who aren't experts in the subject have the impression (maybe because of marvelous photographs like these) that the mid-19th century Napoleon III/Haussmann remaking of Paris was the only radical transformation of the city, but that really wasn't true.

Their reconfiguration, though it was indeed radical, was one manifestation of a centuries-long head-of-state driven thrust toward a modern Paris that started at least in the 16th century with Henri IV, as Joan DeJean makes clear in her recent book, How Paris Became Paris (Bloomsbury, 2014).

These transformations (plural) — projects that glorify their creators as they modernize the city — even stretch into our own day. Think of the Centre Pompidou (1977), François Mitterrand's Bibliothèque nationale de France (1988), and Jacques Chirac's Musée du Quai Branly (2006) — all of a piece with Henri IV's Pont Neuf (1607) and Place des Vosges (1612). Not many of these projects, not even the modern ones, have had artists as skilled as Marville to record them. But their place in that continuous history of city transformation adds another compelling element to Marville's images.

Though commissioned images of the streets of old Paris make up the bulk of Marville's work, and of this show, there are photographs of other things as well. Since he was an artist as well as a documentarian and illustrator, and since the artistic conventions of the new medium were still being set down, Marville applied his artist's instincts as he tested the limits of the technology.

One series records clouds — not an easy subject when exposure times were long, since clouds move. In his series on the Bois de Boulogne, the large park on the western side of Paris, he positioned photographic landscapes in the established tradition of landscape painting which he knew from his early art training. Thanks to his public commissions to photograph Paris, Marville never had to make his living as a professional portrait photographer, but he even did a few of those to try them out.

Almost as a coda to his career, after the great changes he recorded through the 1850s/60s/70s, Marville captured a number of images of the results. He made some relatively lifeless images of the Grand Boulevards (not included here), and a number of very lively photos of the inanimate "furniture" of the streets of Paris: the gas-light standards that really turned her into the City of Light; the poster columns that told people about the exciting pleasures at their disposal in the modern city; the "urinoir" that made city life much more comfortable and convenient, a2t least for men.

Among the most haunting images are a late group showing the outskirts of the city, to which those displaced had been forced: squalid areas reminiscent of the shanty towns of fast-growing third-world cities of today — precursors of the banlieue (suburbs) of our own time through which we pass on the train from the airport into tourist Paris, but about which we think only when news reports of racial/social/economic violence disturb our romantic vision of the city.

If you're familiar with Paris, one of the fun things in a show like this is to pick your favorite neighborhood and see what it looked like way back when. For me, Marville's photos of Rue Soufflot in the 1870s fit that bill best. It's a street I've walked often over 40 years, with a view of the Pantheon heading one direction or the Eiffel Tower in the other.

It's a bustling street day and night, though empty, of course, in Marville's photos. It's Hemingway's Paris — who in his poor, pre-Papa days, lived in a building across from the hotel where I always stay — which is what first brought me to the neighborhood. Thanks to Marville I can glimpse it before the Eiffel Tower (finished in 1889) and before Hemingway (who walked the street in the 1920s). The photos make me feel irrelevant and at the same time connected to the long history of the city.

This is the first U.S. exhibition of the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879), coming to Houston after stops at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition is installed in the downstairs gallery in the MFAH Beck building, across from the cafe. Malcolm Daniel, recently appointed curator in charge of the Department of Photography, explains that MFAH has never had a gallery dedicated to the museum's huge (and growing) photography collection. As a step toward correcting that oversight, the long downstairs corridor, adjacent to the Marville exhibition, will now be used ex­clusively for rotating photography shows. Up now is "Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters" — ­annual images of the same four sisters over 40 years.


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