The First Photographs of the Paris Catacombs

Place Denfert-Rochereau Paris 75014

We all know and recognize the famous photographers of a picturesque old Paris like Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, but have you heard of Felix Nadar? He was the pioneer of adventure photography in the mid 19th century and the first to capture the city from above in a balloon as well as underground in the 200 miles of tunnels that make up the Paris Catacombs.

Selfie of Nadar in his “office” 1861. Notice the glass bottles of chemicals at his feet

It is estimated that 6 million bodies are stacked in these former limestone quarries, (a history in itself which I’ll leave for another day) and tours have been given to curiously morbid visitors since 1810 when Louis Etienne Héricart de Thury, who was the director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, had the idea to turn the disorganized piles of bones into artistic and aesthetically pleasing (look honey, its a heart made of human skulls!) shrines to the dead. The tunnels are illuminated by electricity today, but you can still see traces on the ceiling from when visitors were guided by torches.

“HAULT! Here is the empire of Death!” Notice the smoke trail above?

Nadar, who opened his photography studio in 1855, began by taking portraits of the Parisian elite like Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, but soon became attracted to more ambitious shots after he invented a new method where he could create copies of his photos, unlike the Daguerreotype predecessor. He began taking pictures underground in the catacombs around 1861 and because there was no light, he faced his first challenge of creating it artificially using an early battery. Named after their German creator, Bunsen batteries had not yet been used below ground and Nadar needed to adapt to their bulkiness by attaching them to leads which could be run from the city down to the tunnels below.

A stroll in the Paris sewers

Revolutionizing this process, as well as his fearless use of equipment and chemicals in these narrow underground tunnels was a dangerous venture that seemed to thrill the ballsy young photographer. After much trial and error, (his assistants impatiently quipped that they would die down there before they could successfully get photos) he was finally able to successfully capture images of the ossuary; becoming the first to photograph some of the oldest human remains in existence.

It’s interesting to note how it wasn’t just about the photos, but the experience he wanted to share in visiting such a remarkably significant place. He wrote in his memoirs “the fragment that your foot just bumped into, this debris without a name, is perhaps one of your grandfathers.” Because the picture exposure was as long as 18 minutes, he used mannequins dressed as catacomb workers to give people an idea of what it was like to visit these tunnels and a sense of their limited space.

Can you spot the mannequin?

Thanks to his efforts, the photos he took and then presented at the 1862 International Exhibition in London would be a hit; creating a boom in the popularity of the catacombs, which still exists today as one of the most popular Paris attractions (with a notoriously long queue!).

If you haven’t seen them yet, the catacombs are a unique way to see centuries of Paris history amongst the remains of those who once lived it. And if you are worried it might be too gruesome, this tourist’s review in 1810 sums it up. “I’ve seen death, it is right in front of my eyes, but my stomach is grumbling, and I’d much rather eat”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: