Charles Marville worked as official photographer for Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III to document the areas of Paris that were to be torn down to facilitate the modernization of the city. Marville was tasked to photograph all of the streets that were to be demolished before work began, to document the construction, and to photograph the completed new boulevards. The photograph above shows a street that was demolished. Marville made countless photographs that look remarkably like this one, differing only in the details existing on each street.
While this photograph appears to be documentary, simply a record of a place that once existed, it also operates as a document that justifies the urban changes that were being criticized as they were happening. Marville’s choice to use a longer shutter speed ensures that the streets appear empty, as if they have already been abandoned. The buildings look like empty husks that have not been inhabited in many years. In reality, before their demolition these streets would have been heavily used with daily city traffic. Additionally, this photograph does not attempt to open up the line of sight down the street. Had Marville placed his camera slightly to the left, the viewer would likely be able to see down into the next block. Instead, the line of sight is blocked by the building in the background. The photograph emphasizes the narrowness of the street by framing the view to block access to the distance. Marville’s photographs of areas of Paris slated for demolition tend to act as visual representations of the things that Haussmann and Napoleon III wanted to rectify: dark, narrow streets, ever-present sewage, and old ways of life. For any critics of the new boulevards, these photographs could reinforce the message that Paris was in need of modernization.