paris firsts

The First Paris Aerial Photo

Thomas Pesquet just shared this photo he took on the International Space Station of Paris from above and it made me wonder … Who took THE FIRST aerial photograph of Paris?

VIew of Paris from the International Space Station, Thomas Pesquet 28 April 2021

That honor goes to old school adventure photographer Félix Nadar who sailed the skys of Paris in 1858 via hot air balloon with the help of two Aeronautique Pioneers, the brothers Louis and Jules Godard.

Soaring the skies via Fireball Balloon wasn’t exactly new technology at the time, The French were responsible for that FIRST too in 1783 thanks to another set of brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. (fun fact- in French a hot air balloon is called a Montolfier)

(Nadar elevating Photography to Art), published in Le Boulevard, May 25, 1862.

Nadar holds the honor of being the first badass to take advantage of those heights and bring his camera along for the ride. Only 150 years (and a few kilometers) of difference between Thomas Pesquet and Félix Nadar’s aerial photos of the city of lights.

Same-ish view of Nadar’s photo today via Google Earth, taken near the Arc de Triumph and Avenue Foch

Unfortunately Nadar had a falling out with the brothers in 1863 and he prematurely ended his days of adventure photography.

JUST KIDDING! Where do you go when ground zero bores you and the skies are no longer within reach? Down of course! Where Nadar also made another historic FIRST. Check out the link below.

Maps, Saint Germain des Près and the Eiffel Tower

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”.