Skip to content

La Ville Lumière! Paris first earned the sobriquet, “City of Light,” as a center of learning during the Age of Enlightenment. In the early nineteenth century the advent of gas lighting brought the city’s streets and boulevards alive at night. Light, the very currency of photography, soon enabled Paris to become the first city to be fully documented by the new art, at street level and underground. Paris: City of Light & Shadow features works by Aguado, Atget, Durandelle, Hippolyte Fizeau, J. B. Greene, Marville, Nadar, W. H. Fox Talbot, and others. The exhibition at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc. opens 8 May and runs through 12 July 2024.

Trained as a painter, Charles Nègre (1820-1880) applied expertise in formal composition acquired in the painting studio of Paul Delaroche to the medium of photography. Le tailleur de pierre shows Nègre’s approach to genre photography, a subject for which he was renowned. By using soft focus in the background and bright illumination at the center, Nègre draws the eye toward the stonecutter’s gesture, frozen at a precise moment of action. Without using a fraction-of-a-second exposure, the artist created, rather than captured, what a split second would look like as a photograph. In spite of its instantaneous appearance, this is a posed picture, made with a three second exposure. Even in its diminutive size, this salt print trimmed to a tondo conveys Nègre’s argument for photography’s importance in the representation of modern life.

Charles Marville (1813-1879) was commissioned in the 1860s to produce a series of views of the old streets and building of Paris before their destruction in the wake of Haussmann’s transformation of the city during the Second Empire. By the 1870s he was documenting the new streetlamps, examples of the emergence of Paris as a city of luxury, modernity, and light. The albumen print of “Candélabre du pont de la Concorde” on display is a fine example of the clarity and close attentiveness to detail and structure Marville achieves in his elegantly composed lamppost pictures.

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910) had experimented with photographing by artificial light since 1859, working with engineer Victor Serrin, inventor of the first Bunsen batteries. Both men presented their experiments in the salons of the Cercle de la Presse Scientifique; Nadar obtained a patent for his lighting innovation in 1861. Nadar was invited that year to document the transfer and arrangement of bones from the old Parisian cemeteries to abandoned underground quarries during Haussmann's renovation of the city. He was given exclusive access to the catacombs and a staff. In return, Nadar met the costs of the work and made official gifts of several albums of the photographs. Exposure times, with spotlights visible in some images, were as long as eighteen minutes according to Nadar, who occasionally used mannequins as models in his tableaux. Nadar's series of Paris catacomb photographs are among the most striking images obtained using the then new technology and the first to be made underground. The ghost-like effect of the collodion imperfections in the glass negative of “Hallucinations of shadow, light and collodion” lend to the haunting impression of this scene.

The modernization of Parisian sewers began in 1855 as part of Haussman's urbanization of Paris. Nadar's pioneering underground series of sewer pictures, of which “Part of the gallery converted into a wagon garage” is an important early example, presented unique challenges requiring the use of artificial lighting and flash photography. Scarce on the market, these albumen prints of the catacombs and sewers are the rarest of all Nadar's work.

After moving to Paris in 1924, Gyula Halász (1899-1984) renamed himself Brassaï after his hometown of Brasso, Hungary. He took up photography around 1929 on the advice of fellow Hungarian André Kertész. His 1930s photographs, such as the gelatin silver print Lightning over Paris, evoke the nocturnal atmosphere and the artist’s fascination with the French capital. The 1933 publication of Paris de nuit secured Brassaï’s international reputation. He described his unscientific yet practical method of making nighttime exposures of Paris: “To gauge my shutter time, I would smoke cigarettes-a Gauloise for a certain light, a Boyard if it was darker. The policemen on patrol wondered what kind of crime I was in the midst of committing. They had never seen anyone take pictures at night.

Back To Top