In the massive construction site that was late-19th-century Paris, the photographer Charles Marville was just a few steps ahead of the wrecking ball. As an official city photographer working under Napoleon III and his controversial urban planner, Baron Haussmann, Marville recorded some 425 views of narrow, picturesque streets that were to be replaced by Haussmann’s grand boulevards.
Images from that series are among the 100 or so photographs in “Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they will doubtless be the main draw for visitors eager for a glimpse of a bygone Paris. But this is a different kind of show, one that pays attention to Marville’s early career and to what little we know of his biography. Its revelations creep up on you, ultimately changing your image of Marville as a faceless, camera-toting bureaucrat.
The curators explore, among other things, Marville’s family history: He was born in Paris to a tailor and a seamstress, which suggests sympathies for the small-business owners who would be displaced by Haussmannization. At the very least, it lends itself to new interpretations of photographs like “Course of the Bièvre River (Fifth Arrondissement),” in which leather workers laboring at the edge of an industrially contaminated waterway around 1862 pause to acknowledge the camera.
That’s not to say that Marville comes across as a secret preservationist. We may be able to pinpoint the coordinates of his tripod — the “Old Paris” photos were commissioned partly to help mapmakers — but figuring out exactly where he stands, on an emotional and civic level, is difficult. It’s possible to admire the cobblestones in a picture of the Rue de la Bûcherie while also noting the slick of raw sewage seeping through them.
Marville started out as an illustrator of books and magazines, specializing in landscapes and cityscapes. The tricks of that trade are apparent in his early photographs, which fill the first of the show’s three galleries and have a cloying romanticism: An open park gate beckons; a young man leans against the trunk of a sun-dappled chestnut tree. A few transcend genre, like the École des Beaux-Arts in the snow that’s too atmospheric to be an architectural study.
The science of photography was evolving quickly, from paper negatives to collodion-coated glass plates, and Marville’s art evolved along with it. By 1858, when he received his first commission from the city, he could produce crisp, technically adept images that embraced contradiction and complexity.
He had been assigned to photograph the Bois de Boulogne, Napoleon III’s first big building project. A public park on the edge of Paris that had once been a private hunting ground, it was the sort of constructed landscape that we know from Impressionist paintings of Sunday leisure. Marville was clearly hired to market its pleasures to the bourgeoisie, and, in a sense, he did just that, highlighting lush grottoes, English-style garden follies and meandering paths. But he also exposed the artifice of the whole project, in, for instance, a shot of a bridge connecting the park to the industrial district of Suresnes. A lone workman, sitting in the grass, directs our gaze to a not-so-distant smokestack.
Many of the “Old Paris” photographs use similar compositional devices, luring us deep into the background with glimpses of light coming through a doorway or including a flâneurlike figure as an invitation to explore an ancient alley. (Figures that appear in these photographs are often Marville or one of his assistants, as long exposure times made it impossible to capture most street traffic.)
Signs are prominent, some of them trumpeting “moving sales” or alerting passers-by to new addresses. The show’s curator, Sarah Kennel (of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the show originated; the Met curators Jeff L. Rosenheim and Doug Eklund have supervised the New York presentation) calls attention to the posters and advertisements hawking paintings and collages in a shot of the Rue Saint-Jacques, then the city’s print publishing district. Ms. Kennel suggests, quite plausibly, that the former illustrator Marville had a special attachment to this soon-to-be-demolished corner of the city.
A photograph of a cylindrical kiosk, neatly shingled with posters, stands as a kind of “after” image to the “before” of the Rue Saint-Jacques. It belongs to another commission from the city, this one documenting the street furniture that the architect Gabriel Davioud designed for Haussmann. Marville’s shots of newly installed gas lamps, from this series, are justifiably famous; they have a kind of sly humor that undercuts the gravity of his official mission, as when he captures the strange interplay of a lamppost and a classical torso at the entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts.
Other photographs pull back to show a thoroughly Haussmannized Paris, with wide, flat boulevards. These were exhibited at the Universal Exposition of 1878 next to images from the “Old Paris” album, so as to flaunt the city’s progress to an international audience.
Here, too, though, are contemporaneous scenes that show things to be quite different along the city’s outskirts. A shantytown of displaced workers has materialized along the Rue Champlain, and areas newly incorporated into Paris continue to tell a tale of two cities (“the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged by the city of misery,” as the critic Louis Lazare wrote in 1870).
Marville, and not Paris, is the subject of this show, as Ms. Kennel makes clear in her texts and catalog essay. (Consider her title, with its subtle but significant tweak to the 1980 touring exhibition “Charles Marville: Photographs of Paris.”) But an installation in the adjacent galleries, “Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s-1930s,” revels in the city’s seemingly inexhaustible romance. It includes additional works by Marville, alongside some by Atget, Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, among others, and is worth seeing.
Many details of Marville’s career remain obscure; some records of his life and work were lost in the fires of the 1871 Paris Commune. But this show starts to sketch out a persona: that of a cleareyed cartographer who never quite let go of the illustrator’s imperative to make a beautiful, cohesive picture.
Marville also comes across as a striver, a tireless promoter of his talents and his medium. (See the picture in which he poses with an entourage of assistants and household members outside an impressively large studio.) You can tell that he didn’t just want to serve his employers, or to preserve the topography of old Paris; he wanted to give photography a permanent office in the modern city.