Paris transformed into the “City of Light” through grand-scale architectural renovations, demolitions, and new construction set in motion during the Second Empire (1852–70). With absolute power, Emperor Napoleon III remapped the French capital from the ground up, appointing civil servant Georges-Eugène Haussmann to redesign Paris toward improved safety, public health and sanitation, and traffic circulation. A self-described artiste démolisseur (demolition artist), Haussmann razed densely settled areas of the medieval city center, its labyrinthine streets rapidly giving way to new axes of orderly, wide boulevards anchored by monuments and open spaces for recreation. During this unprecedented intervention into public space, specially commissioned photographers worked alongside architects, engineers, masons, and sculptors, recording the building projects in progress.
This exhibition explores the documentary nature of photography during this transfixing “age under construction,” a half-century in which photographers created a visual archive of Paris, from the heights of cathedral spires and imposing historic monuments, to the boulevard and the depths of the catacombs. The thirty works on view demonstrate the technical exactitude and artistic flowering of many of the period’s leading architectural photographers, including Édouard Baldus and Charles Marville, who provided government officials with minutely detailed, large-format photographs chronicling the embellishment of Paris. Serving as practical reference tools intended to preserve memory of the city’s architectural heritage and direct future restoration efforts, many of these images were also exhibited in a series of spectacular World’s Fairs held in Paris, where the city celebrated itself as a model for urban development.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.