This is the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition of Charles Marville's photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., from September 2013 until January 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from January 2014 until May, and then at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from June until September. It is a collaborative effort of those museums and commemorates the 200th anniversary of Marville's birth in 1813. Although there were a couple of shows of his works in Paris and New York around 1980, this exhibition has been put together from over twenty public and private collections and is the most comprehensive presentation of his works ever assembled. Among the photographers we associate with nineteenth-century France--Le Gray, Le Secq, Atget, et. al.--Marville has been for some time the least well known, owing in part simply to a lack of information about him. For example, it was only the intensive archival research undertaken for this project that revealed that "Marville" was in fact the assumed name of Charles-Francois Bossu. This and other pertinent biographical information is woven into the general introduction by Sarah Kennel, an associate curator of photographs at the National Gallery, the principal organizer of the exposition, and the editor of the catalogue. This is a richly illustrated essay of about forty pages that traces Marville's life and work from his early artistic training and occupation as a commercial artist to his increasingly recognized work as an unofficial and quasi-official photographer who styled himself variously as "Photographer of the Imperial Museum of The Louvre," "Photographer of the National Museums," etc., and who was in fact commissioned to undertake public photographic assignments for the municipality as well as private projects for publishing houses, architects, and other institutions that were more and more discovering the usefulness of photographic documentation. Having come to photography fairly early (1850), and working right up to his death in 1879, Marville's career was one of the longest among his colleagues, and the list of objects at which he pointed his camera is also long: churches, monuments, workmen's quarters and ateliers, monuments, and, principally, the landscapes and cityscapes for which he was best known, for he became both the official and unofficial documenter of the vast urban renewal projects decreed by Napoleon III, which in less than twenty years changed forever the face of the city. Many of the photographs are of streets and squares slated for demolition and of the demolition work itself as well as of the newly constructed boulevards which replaced them, including items of modern "street furniture" like Morris columns, public urinals and the rows of specially designed lamp-posts intended to make Paris the "city of light"; Marville made close to five hundred images of Paris in transformation.
The exhibition presents 104 of Marville's photographs, representing all aspects of his work and stretching from his first known image (a shot of his lover and her sister from 1850) to one of his very last taken twenty-eight years later. Each of these is excellently reproduced on a full page in the catalogue, and these reproductions are supported by about fifty companion illustrations in the four curatorial essays that follow the general introduction.There are also several two-page spreads of enlarged details. The essays discuss his work before the municipal commissions, his photographic project on the Bois de Boulogne (which resulted in a whole album), the "old" Paris (i.e., before the renewal works), and his contributions to the various "Universal Expositions" in London, Paris, Vienna, etc. These are all very well written and informative and take in both the social and political circumstances of his work and also its artistic context. We learn for instance that Marville was both a practical innovator (he constructed the first portable negative holder and co-registered a patent for a twin-lens stereoscopic camera) and also an original artistic thinker (the first to create a real photographic series and to photograph the same scene in different seasons, the first to seriously photograph clouds, etc.). The volume concludes with an extensive chronology of the artist, a selected bibliography including a list of books containing Marville's illustrations and a list of those with his photographs, a checklist of the exhibition with curatorial data, and a comprehensive index. This is a book which should appeal to anyone interested in photography as cultural document or as art, in the visual representation of urban spaces, or in the nineteenth century, or simply in things French. It is superbly produced and beautifully designed and printed; the pages are large, the print is generously sized and the lines generously spaced; it's a pleasure to read and to behold, and I can't recommend it more highly.