Charles Marville: The Street Lamps of Paris

Charles Marville began his career as a draftsman, making wood engravings and lithographs as book illustrations. By 1851 he was a well- established photographer, working both as official photographer for the Louvre Museum and for Blanquart-Evrard’s pioneering photographic publishing venture.

In 1861, Marville received his first major commission from the French government, an assignment to document the newly established park in the Bois de Boulogne. Following the success of that project, in 1865 he received his second major Imperial commission. In preparation for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban renewal projects, Marville was tasked with creating more than 400 large-format views of the ancient “streets or portions of streets destined to disappear”.

Using very large wet collodion on glass negatives, often photographing in early morning from a tall ladder, this project is one of the most important of the 19th century. The prints in this exhibit are from an album documenting the University quarter of Paris, the center of intellectual life in France from Medieval times to the present. Most of the small streets were destroyed for the Haussman projects, and for the grand boulevards, like St. Germain and St. Michel. Beautifully made from the first printing of the negatives and ex-collection André Jammes. All the albums prepared for the French government and deposited in the archives were destroyed in the fire at the Hotel de Ville, and reprinted by Marville in 1873.

After the completion of this huge and important project and the accompanying rebuilding of the city, Marville again received an Imperial commission. This time it was to document the dozens of forms of street lamps designed and installed to illuminate the new, wider streets and avenues and to project Paris’ desired image as the most beautiful, and safest, of European capitals. The views were exhibited at the Universal Exposition of 1878, just before Marville’s death. This first photographic typology is a fascinating study of the extraordinary variety of lamps designed for specific locations and the proto-modernist vision of Marville in placing them within the newly created urban context.