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”.

ile de la cité, Maps

The First Captured Image of Movement

21 Quai de Bourbon Paris 75004

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I see an old photograph taken in Paris, my first thoughts are “Where was this taken” and ‘Can I see this same image through my camera lens today?”.

Maybe it’s part of my fascination with the idea that I am walking in the same steps of someone from the past, who although may be long gone- can still share with me this same setting (more or less) some 170 years later? I’m obsessed with the concept of “FIRSTS”, and I stumbled upon this photo (or Daguerreotype if you want to be precise) taken around 1851 by French photographer and artist Charles Nègre, who was noted for his preference of photographing the working class. (Hell yeah! A photographer of the PEOPLE!)

Remarkably, this is considered THE FIRST captured image of movement. These three youngsters are chimney sweeps, walking along the Quai de Bourbon on the northern side of ile Saint Louis.

I immediately analyzed this photo, looking for clues to give its precise location today. It means a lot more to me if I can pinpoint THAT EXACT SPOT. The paving on the wall has obviously been replaced. (But you know damn well I would have sought out these exact crevices had it not been) You can’t see much definition of the buildings in the background, located on the opposite Quai des Célestins- plus that area was largely leveled in the mid 1900’s. I looked for more info on the photograph and discovered that Charles had a workshop on the Quai at number 21. Presuming he took this photo not far from his workshop, this is the closest image I could come up with that did not contain trees.

TAH-DAH! Long before child labor laws, you can imagine these boys working under these hazardous conditions likely missed out on a childhood we take for granted today. I feel somewhat comforted that even if they weren’t aware in that moment of their participation in this FIRST, their suffering counted for something and here they are remembered in 2021.