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Paris Transformed

Old Paris is no more (the face of a city
Changes faster than the human heart, alas).

from Charles Baudelaire,“Le Cygne,” 1859

Top of the rue Champlain, 1877–1878

Top of the rue Champlain (View to the Right) (20th arrondissement), 1877–1878
albumen print from collodion negative
Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Image © Charles Marville / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

The rue Champlain cut through a shantytown that had sprung up in the 1860s and 1870s as legions of the working poor moved away from the inner city. A stronghold of the left, the area remained among the least modernized parts of the city for decades. The photograph conveys what one author claimed in 1870, that Paris was in essence two cities “quite different and hostile: the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged by the city of misery.” By carefully placing a young man—perhaps an assistant—overlooking the sprawl of shacks toward the edge of the distant city, Marville created a powerful image of isolation and loss.

Although Haussmannization would continue, in some form or another, through the end of the century, by the time Paris hosted the universal exhibition in 1878 the city had been utterly transformed, both physically and culturally. Traffic hurtled at a dizzying pace on the broad boulevards planted with slender saplings, while elegant new parks offered a break from the incessant pace of modern urban life. The city was adorned with thousands of new gas lamps, fountains that provided fresh drinking water, advertising kiosks, and even public bathrooms. But the costs of modernization were steep: entire neighborhoods were torn down, communities uprooted (especially those of the working class), and familiar ways of life pulverized. For many, the rapidly changing city fueled a keen sense of estrangement. Under Haussmann, one writer lamented, “Paris no longer had citizens, only inhabitants.”

When Marville died on June 1, 1879, the city he had known as a youth—with its warren of small, crooked streets, dilapidated buildings, neighborhood shops, and small trades—had been more or less replaced by a cleaner, straighter, and altogether grander version of itself. It appears that Marville too had been superseded: the photographer who had produced some of the most riveting urban imagery in the 19th century did not receive a single obituary.