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A city under construction — and destruction — is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris" is a collection of 19th-century photographs of one of the world's most beloved cities as it transitioned from medieval architectural hodgepodge to what became the City of Light.
The images were taken by photographer Charles Marville, who, according to an 1854 self-portrait, was short — a bit under 5 feet 2 inches — with a flowing mustache, blue eyes and a little bit of a potbelly.
With his large-format 8-by-10 camera, glass plates and natural light, Marville captured a sepia-toned Paris
"He's showing parts of the city at the moment before their disappearance," says curator Sarah Kennel.
Napoleon III was determined to make Paris into the world's most modern city, and he charged urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the task. In the early 1860s, Marville was commissioned to document the process, or, as Kennel describes it, "to create a record of the material culture of a city that would soon be destroyed."
"That's why I think his photographs were also so powerful," she says. "He's so conscious of taking down every detail of the streets, of the street signs, of the reflections in the window, of the shape of the cobblestones, because this is going to be the record of this place."
Paris at that time was, as someone delicately put it, "a giant hole of putrefaction."
"The sewer system was almost nonexistent," Kennel says, "so people would just throw the muck out onto the street."
Napoleon and friends put in some outdoor facilities, which Marville photographed. They were called pissoirs, or public urinals: half-circle, high fences on poles with no roof. There wasn't much privacy, but they covered what needed to be covered — shoulder to knee. And they were certainly more hygienic than sloshing through the muck.
Haussmann had some 20,000 gas lamps installed on Paris streets, many of which Marville also photographed.
"The lamppost, the streets were all situated in perfect harmony," Kennel says. "And, in fact, the architect was very obsessive, in a way, almost about the height of the lamppost. And if you look down the street, they would all seem like they were at the same height, even if the streets themselves had slightly different heights. So you had some of them up on a little bit of a stilt and other ones cut down a little bit, so that you would see this regularity and harmony and order as you looked down the street."
Kennel says creating all that symmetry made a bit of a mess: "Paris was one giant construction site at this moment, particularly the center of Paris and the western edge of Paris. And everywhere you went, boulevards were being built, streets were being torn up, whole neighborhoods were being razed."
Again, Marville shows the evidence in a picture taken on the right bank of the Seine: There's the river, Notre Dame Cathedral in the far background and a new wing of the Louvre going up along the riverside.
"You can see the banks lined with chunks of quarry stone that are going to be used to build Paris, also enigmatic, covered piles of things," Kennel says. "And you also get a real sense of how much the Seine was the center of industry."
Back then, before Napoleon and Haussmann, the river was the highway — everything went up and down the Seine.
"Then they built all the grand boulevards, and it became a place where now you can take nice, lovely boat rides and look at all the monuments," Kennel explains.
One of the many miracles of Paris is the history that's lived with every day. The most modern building will give onto a plaza that's been in place for centuries; the most glorious old garden has flowers that distract from an ugly new tower. In the 19th century, Marville photographed what was new then, and still delights us now. And, as photographer of Paris, he documented earlier histories before they were erased.