Sunday 19 December 2010

Avant/Après - looking back on Haussmann’s Paris

150 years were needed to write this book’ notes author and historian Patrice de Moncan in the introduction of his publication ‘Paris Avant-Après’, a book comparing Charles Marville’s 19th century pictures of Paris with photos of the same spots taken by his team today. A literary exageration perhaps, but representative of the labour of love the book entailed.

150 years is in fact the time elapsed since Charles Marville began his task of photographing the changing city of Paris, and an anniversary that Patrice de Moncan was determined to celebrate. The project, the largest ever undertaken on the works of Marville, involved carefully sifting through the photographer’s creations, then attempting to find the remaining traces in today’s city. In other words, as de Moncan says, “to put our feet in Marville’s and place our objective in exactly the same spot as he’d placed his”.

The result is an impressive and attractive book, featuring over 730 photos and 40 maps spread across 450 pages. Weighing around 3kg, it is a publication to lay down on a table, and lovingly pore over. Endlessly fascinating, it is an important reference not only on the the Paris of the second empire, but also on the city as it stands in 2010.

I recently met Patrice de Moncan, and we spoke together about the three main subjects featured in the book.

Paris in 1860, Paris today

What is so fascinating about Marville’s pictures” explains Patrice de Moncan, “is that they caught on record one of the most important eras in the history of Paris”. The period is indeed a crucial one, as it marked the end of the medieval city and the beginning of one of the world’s first truly modern cities.

Napolean III, who had returned to France from exile in England, chose the Baron Haussmann to undertake a complete regeneration of the city, ripping down the dense and insalubrious buildings and bringing in wide boulevards, plumbing and green spaces. In his pictures, Marville, the official photographer for the city of Paris, captured a world between the two. In many of the original photos, some of the Haussmannian buildings and traces of the Boulevards are already in place, but they are surrounded by the vestiges of a denser, older city.

It is these ancient buildings – crooked and uneven - that are strikingly absent in the photos taken by Patrice de Moncan today. “Haussmann and the city of Paris hired Marville to capture these old buildings before they disappeared” explains de Moncan. “There was no nostalgia though” he adds, “the Baron Haussmann wanted not only to record the old city for posterity, but also to provide a suitable contrast with the impressive new one”, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867.

Another curiousity can be found written on the walls of these old buildings. Although we may think that today's society is overtly commercial and polluted by advertising, the Paris of Marville is seemingly covered with company names, products and slogans.

The photography

What seems incredible at first in Marville’s photos is the lack of people” says de Moncan. As he explains though, “this was simply due to the limitations of the technology at the time. A picture in the mid-19th century needed an exposure of between three and fifteen minutes, which meant that the people, horses and carriages were simply moving too fast to be caught on film”.

The technology chosen by Marville was crucial too. He used the calotype technique developed by Fox Talbot rather than the
daguerreotype used by his French contemporaries. His choice meant that he was alienated from his peers in the country, but the fact that he recorded the image as a negative, meant that it could be reproduced and thus recorded for posterity.

Patrice de Moncan’s team had fewer problems than may be imagined finding the spots chosen by Marville, and only around 100 of his original photos could not be recreated. As de Moncan points out though, “this was not just because of Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, but also because of the recreation of the city in the 1970s, for example with the destruction of Les Halles and the area around Montparnasse”.

In artistic terms he had few worries too. “When you compare Marville’s photos of Paris with others he took in his lifetime, you can see that this was a purely business contract”. Patrice de Moncan did however have more problems with the busy city today. “Several times we had to abandon shots and come back later because of big delivery lorries or too many parked cars.” He wonders whether Marville also had any similar problems with abandoned horses or forgotten carts, but concludes that it is partially these little features that add to the charm of his pictures. “I can only hope that future generations will think the same of the parked cars and pedestrians in our photos” he adds.

Haussmann – hero or villain?

It is perhaps a strange question to ask to a man who won the Prix Haussmann in 2003 for his previous books on the period, but it is also a question that is still endlessly debated.

Although de Moncan recognises that some of the Baron Haussmann’s works were a failure, notably on the Ile de la Cité which he describes as ‘a massacre’, he is a fervent believer that the second empire regeneration of Paris was a huge success. “Paris became a model for cities around the world” he points out. “It was also one of the only city regenerations in the world that was planned, and wasn't rebuilt following war or natural disaster.

Patrice de Moncan is also adamant that the changes were vital. "Victor Hugo and Eugène Sue criticised the Baron Haussmann's works for destroying the soul of the city, but they perhaps forgot a little too quickly just how poor and miserable the centre of Paris was beforehand".

He is also careful to dispel some of the other myths that have grown up around the Baron Haussmann and his project. “The new city wasn’t designed to control its inhabitants and prevent any popular revolts” he claims. For the author, the proof of this fact is that the Commune uprising in 1871 was able to take place.

He does however recognise that Haussmann’s Paris had become deeply unfashionable until recently. “We were never taught about the successes of the second empire at school” he explains. Victor Hugo’s attacks on Napolean III’s regime left a lasting impression in France, and as de Moncan points out, “Haussmannian buildings were seen as being ‘mauvais goût’ until well into the 1970s”.

Today's city is recognisible in many of Marville's photos, and what this book is perhaps also celebrating is just how little it has changed in 150 years. With rising property prices in Paris today showing just how much in demand Haussmannian buildings are now, it is very possible that we will still be saying the same thing about the city when somebody launches a similar project to de Moncan 150 years from now!

"Paris Avant/Après" is published by Les Editions du Mècene. It can be ordered from the publisher but is also available in most bookshops. Outside of France it is distributed by Gallimard, and can be ordered at any decent retailer.


Unknown said...

What a great interview! I definitely want to pick up this book.

Tim said...

Excellent subject, interesting book, great interview. To produce the book did de Moncan use reproductions of the photos or did he have access to the original negatives? Is there a place, whether physical or digital, where the Marville photos are stocked?

Adam said...

Tim: Most of the photos seem to be held at the Bibliothèque administrative de la Ville de Paris in the Hotel de Ville, so in theory anyone could consult them. Patrice de Moncan has already written several other books on Marville and Paris in the 19th century, so I'm sure he must have access to good quality sources, but I'm not sure whether that means the original negatives or not.

Adam said...

Here is an official answer: "Les photos anciennes sont des reproductions des tirages papier originaux de Marville appartenant à des collectionneurs privés.
La Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris (BHVP) conserve les plaques originales, mais celles-ci ne sont pas destinées au public. On peut y voir cependant des reproductions faites d'après ces plaques."

(Roughly translated, Mr de Moncan used reproductions of prints from private collections. The original negatives can be found in the BHVP, but are not for public viewing. However, there are a selection of Marville prints that can be viewed at the library)

Owen said...

Sounds fascinating, and at 3 kgs a weighty tome indeed. A book one could wish to receive as a Christmas present ! Probably a must for any true lover of Paris.

{nikki} said...

It sounds wonderful! I can't wait to find it, wrap it, and give it to myself as a Christmas present!

Shane said...

Hi Adam, enjoyed this interview a lot. Have you got a copy of the book, could I borrow it some day?

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