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This is the latest in a series of photo essays on early French photographers
Charles Marville (1813-1879) lived in Paris at the same time as Adolphe Braun and spent his career as a photographer also documenting the large-scale urban renovations overseen by Baron Haussmann. The comparison between Marville’s photographs of the city and Braun’s is fascinating.
Unlike Braun, Marville was a great fan of Haussmann. So much so that the city of Paris hired him to photograph the renovation of the city. Although he and Braun shot very similar scenes, their photographs display radically different points of view.
In Marville’s pre-Haussmann photographs, Paris is desolate and dirty, as you can see in the photo featured above. But the mood is hopeful. A brighter future awaits. As does the gaze of the boy in the photo, our eyes travel toward renewal. In the middle ground, we see new buildings going up. They are neat and clean, even handsome and well-proportioned. And in the far-distance, we can just barely make out the Eiffel Tower, symbol of progress. In this photo, Hausmann is a hero; he is clearing slums and creating a new and better Paris.
Marville’s photographs of the old Paris convey the message of “good riddance.” He shows us scenes that no one could love. We see slag heaps, derelict buildings and barren warrens. No one will miss these streets when they are gone.
To underscore his positive view of Haussman’s building program, Marville presents absolutely charming photos of new “conveniences” in the modernized streets. Below is a photo of a pissoir. Even despite the liquid running out from its base, it is a ported as a charming architectural artifact of the new Paris.
There is also a spectacular new produce market, close cousin to the Eiffel Tower in its cast-iron design, soaring height and airy beauty.
And the streets are lovely. Compare the “before” and “after” of the Paris rebuilt by Haussmann, as captured in Marville’s photographs below. You can also smell the stench of the tanneries next to the polluted Bièvre river, which Haussmann subsequently covered over to protect citizens from disease. In contrast, his photo of the Boulevard Haussmann shows a wide, clean street with nary a piece of debris. Would any sane Parisian wish to return to the days when sewage flowed unchecked through the streets?
There can be no doubt what Marville thinks of Haussmann’s work. And in this way, we see how art can convey point of view using purely visual means. This is not an easy thing to do. Only a superb artist can ensure that his message comes through loud and clear.
Lead photo credit : Charles Marville, Haut de la rue Champlain, between 1877 and 1878. Public domain