Souvenirs

Nadar: View of the Catacombes de Paris, ca. 1861.

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A City Transformed: Photographs of Paris, 1850-1900,” on view at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through September 23, showcases photographs taken in Paris during and after the Second Empire (1852-1870), when Georges-Eugène Haussmann razed and rebuilt large sections of the city under Napoleon III.  

This massive reconstruction job—gentrification before the fact—was famously lamented by writers and intellectuals, from Victor Hugo to Baudelaire to the Goncourt brothers. Photographers, however, offered a more ambiguous response. Charles Marville and Édouard Baldus (prints by both are on view at the Clark) were commissioned by the government to document Paris’s new boulevards and plazas; they also depicted the preservation of old monuments, buildings, and streets—traces of a city that had disappeared.

Here we look back in A.i.A.’s archives to our September 1988 issue in which historian Shelley Rice reflected on the transformation of Paris as it was depicted by the prodigious photographer Nadar (whose work is also included in the Clark exhibition). “In his politics, his friends, his inventions and his vision, Nadar was consistently and self-consciously a radical, even a prophet, glorying in both the new mediums and the new technical experiments,” Rice writes. “Yet the oeuvre of Nadar is marked by a profound ambivalence toward the modern world of progress in which he lived, and which he helped bring into being.” She discusses how Nadar photographed the city from various vantages, employing advanced techniques from artificial lighting to flying in an aerial balloon. She writes at length about his fascination with catacombs, which she feels both conveys and complicates the general feeling among Parisians that “their past [was] being swept away by the onset of a new, administratively conceived and realized social order, [that] death was in the air.” We present her wide-ranging essay in full below. –Eds.


 

 

Paris, Empire des Morts

During the 1850s and 1860s, it became a literary platitude to describe Paris as a dying city. This perception of decay existed as early as 1830, when the historian Friedrich von Raumer wrote in his letters: “Yesterday I surveyed the enormous city from the Notre Dame tower. Who built the first house, when will the last one collapse and the ground of Paris look like the ground of Thebes and Babylon?”1 The broad overview from the tower of Notre Dame—the bird’s eye view so characteristic of the nineteenth century because of the Montgolfier brothers’ invention of ballooning in 1783—seemed to encourage sweeping meditations on the city, not only in space but also in time.

The idea that Paris was to die like the cities of antiquity, that it, too, had a cycle of creation and destruction, infused Victor Hugo’s poetic cycle A l’Arc de Triomphe, for instance.2 It was seminal to the poetry of Baudelaire, and gave Maxine du Camp the impetus and inspiration to write his massive, six-volume survey of the city administration.3 As Paul Bourget explained, describing Du Camp’s epiphany in 1862 while waiting for his new eyeglasses near the optician’s shop near the Pont Neuf, “The slight deterioration of his eyesight . . . reminded him of the law of the inevitable infirmity of all human things. . . .  It suddenly occurred to the man who had travelled widely in the Orient, who was acquainted with the deserts whose sand is the dust of the dead, that this city, too, whose bustle was all around him, would have to die some day, the way so many capitals had died.” Du Camp’s resolution, at that moment, “to write the kind of book about Paris that the historians of antiquity failed to write about their cities,”4 was his attempt to preserve Paris before it slipped into the stream of time—an end that suddenly appeared not only inevitable but imminent.

This was not simply a Romantic literary conceit. When, in 1856, Théophile Gautier published an essay about Paris entitled “Mosaïque des ruines,”5 and when, in 1867, Edmond About’s article “Dans les ruines” appeared,6 no one in the city would have had any trouble understanding their references. For the generation living in the age of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III and the man responsible for carrying out the Emperor’s transformation of Paris, a city in ruins was part of the day-to-day reality of their lives. Haussmann’s army of workers, beginning in the mid-1850s, had razed large portions of the Old Paris in order to make way for the wide boulevards and streets that were to distinguish the city of the Industrial Age.7 As buildings were torn down and entire neighborhoods restructured or obliterated, the social fabric of the city was likewise transformed, with patterns of life, relationships, transportation and economic interaction beginning to take on a new shape. For Parisians watching the rubble of their past being swept away by the onset of a new, administratively conceived and realized social order, death was in the air.

Those living with the discomforts of the soul brought on by such an upheaval, however, defined the death of Paris in a very specific way. Obviously, the city had suffered no physical or literal death. It was, indeed, to an outside observer, in much better shape after Haussmann’s efforts than before. Maxime Du Camp himself admitted that “in 1848, Paris was about to become uninhabitable,”8 and that the reconstruction could only be said to have “given to Paris facilities of communication and cleanliness that it hadn’t formerly known.”9 Many of the disease-ridden slum areas were destroyed, while a large number of the city’s poor were shunted to the outlying areas, some of which had been annexed in 1859 with the geographical expansion of the city limits. Wide, tree-lined boulevards efficiently handled the traffic and overcrowding that had almost choked the Paris of 1848. Commerce and trading were brisk, in shops on the new streets as well as in the first department stores. In addition, there were functional sewers, parks, new monuments and squares; the city finally had a reasonable water supply, gas lights, better security and easy access to trains. By all the statistics, and all the signs of activity, Paris during and after Haussmann was a boomtown, not a graveyard.

 

So the mourners were reacting to something else, something that couldn’t be measured by all these signs of civic amelioration. The death they perceived was of a more metaphysical order, that state characterized by Walter Benjamin as a “sadness about what was and lack of hope for what is to come.”10 This sense of loss is perhaps best expressed in an essay by Louis Blanc entitled “Le Vieux Paris,” published in 1867.11 In the article, Blanc quotes a number of famous historical personages, who describe their adoration of Paris. The author then goes on to point out that the city they loved was crowded, dirty and ill-kept; that many of its most famous landmarks—its grand hotels, boulevards and bustling cafes—did not yet exist, and could not have been the reasons for these great men’s affection. He concludes, therefore, that “in all the periods of its existence, Paris had had a charm independent of its exterior beauty.”12 

Blanc locates the source of this irresistible charm in the “great men and great things”13 that, by contributing to the ongoing intellectual life of Paris, left their historic imprint on the physical environment: an imprint to be perceived, indeed imbibed, by later generations. When he quotes Goethe extolling the virtues of “this universal city, where each step on a bridge, on a place brings to mind a great past, where at each corner of a street a fragment of history unfolds,”14 he is pointing out that the spiritual life of the city was dependent on the “illustrious phantoms”15 that infused its very physical form with their being, with the “images that animate each of the (old) stones.”16 And Blanc goes on to say that “it is this which constitutes what I would willingly call [Paris’s] soul; because cities have a soul, which is their past; and their material beauty only has value when it lets subsist the visible traces of this other beauty which is comprised of memories.”17 

Blanc was, in other words, equating the soul of a city with its history, as it has inscribed itself in matter over time. To him, the physical and the spiritual were inseparable, so the retention of the city’s memory was a question of landmark preservation. From this point of view, the concepts of urban death that took shape during the Second Empire become very clear, for Haussmann, by demolishing the old, did nothing less than separate the body of Paris from its soul. The Prefect destroyed much more than objects and spaces—he destroyed the repositories of mental images, demolished the histories and meanings of places that together shaped the collective memory. He created a rupture with the past, with tradition, with metaphorical thought that was irreparable, and he left the “illustrious phantoms ” of memory wandering homeless through the new metropolis.

The resultant schism between image and object, spirit and matter, memory and experience might explain, in part, why it was in the Paris of the Second Empire that photography first became a socially functional medium of expression. The same historical period that gave us the city of the Industrial Age also gave us the efficient and inexpensive means to reproduce and disseminate permanently fixed photographic prints. Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard’s newly perfected process, based on the calotype of William Henry Fox Talbot, made it possible for multiple prints to be made on paper from a single negative, an advance he exploited industrially in his Imprimerie at Lille, the first successful fee printing business. It produced books and albums, printing some one hundred thousand negatives for commercial purposes during its five years of existence.18 Indeed, the foundations of our own mass-media society were laid during this period when, to quote Joseph Joubert, artists became “more inspired by the image than by the actual presence of objects.”19 

 

The “illustrious phantoms” of the past were at large, and it became photography’s business to find them, to capture the images that still animated the old stones which had not yet been demolished or dispersed. Much of the photographic work done during the Second Empire was, indeed, involved with preservation of old monuments, buildings and streets; Charles Marville, the Mission Héliographique and Le Secq’s pictures of Notre Dame de Paris immediately come to mind. But there is another, more abstract way in which the medium, which immediately transforms the present into history, reflected the turning backward, toward the past, that characterized many of the thinkers and artists of the age. For a photograph, like the Paris which they perceived, is (to quote Roland Barthes) “without future.” Barthes’s contention is that the advent of photography divided the history of the world; suddenly, because of its visual traces, the past became as certain as the present. But the image that photography captures from history does not, as we do, swim on in time; “motionless, the photograph flows back from presentation to retention.”20 

And this is, of course, one of the ironies of the Age of Progress: among its greatest technical and scientific advances was a medium which looked not forward but backward. Photography was the still point in a turning world, the brake in history’s ceaseless march. But it reflected the experience of many Parisians in another, more critical way—for it, like Haussmannization, created a rupture in the flow of time, an unbridgeable gap between memory and experience, an irreparable breach between the this has been and the this is.

But what about the flesh-and-blood people who lived in this Paris, a Paris that existed geographically and historically in “real” time and space? For many of the artists and writers working during the Second Empire, active in their own culture and yet still living in memories that failed to match up with the new Paris of their day-to-day experience, life resembled Marcel’s experience in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: a series of snapshots isolated in time that gave contradictory evidence, as if time itself were playing tricks with any concept of truth that appeared to be stable.21 Those who suffered from this malaise often described themselves, interestingly enough, as “travellers.” The Goncourts, in their journal of November 1860, stated that the changes in Parisian life “make me feel, in this country so dear to my heart, like a traveller. I am a stranger to what is coming, to what is, as I am to these new boulevards  . . .”22 And Nadar, the subject of this study, put it this way: “Where is my infancy, where my youth, where all the aspects that bring back to me fond memories, where have I finally left all that is for us the Patrimony, I am like a traveller who arrived yesterday in a strange city . . .”23 

Yet none of these men had made any journey in space. Theirs was time travel. Ambiguous, non-physical, allusive, these time displacements were on certain levels just like capital: fluid, abstract and invisible. They nonetheless provided the basis for some of the most important changes in this most empirical and positivist of eras. No wonder that, when the Goncourts were attempting to personify the changes in their city, they contrasted the “man about town” twenty years before—an artist, a senior civil servant, an officer, a bourgeois or a sporting gentleman—with his Second Empire counterpart, who “is almost always a stock-exchange speculator or photographer”—the two equated, as T.J. Clark sees it, because they are both “servants of illusion.”24 

 

II. Memories

One of the Second Empire’s quintessential “servants of illusion” was Nadar, born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon in 1820. Eighteen years old when his father, a printer, died, Nadar paid his own way as a journalist, a caricaturist, a political activist, a novelist, a photographer, a balloonist and a prophet of aviation throughout his long life, which ended in the same place it had begun, in Paris, in 1910. His biography, which deserves to be much better known in this country, reads like a checklist of the major currents of thought and action in the nineteenth century. Writing in his journals, Baudelaire commented jealously that “Nadar is the most astounding example of vitality,”25 and the photographer himself estimated in 1865 that he knew about 10,000 people in Paris alone.26 At times it seems inevitable that such unbridled human energy should have produced what is today regarded as one of the most important photographic records of Parisians during the Second Empire, and indeed it is for his portraits of writers, artists, actors, politicians and cultural figures, all of them his friends, that Nadar is probably most widely recognized.

But he also left us another, much less well known body of photographs: his pictures of Paris, viewed both from the air and from underground. These were the first photographs ever taken with artificial light or from a balloon, and the technical inventiveness involved was formidable. The photographs themselves are straightforward documents of the city’s sewers and catacombs as well as of its streets and monuments as seen from above, but the real fascination of these works lies in the sheer radicalism of the vision that conceived and executed them. Walter Benjamin himself acknowledged that “Nadar’s lead over his professional colleagues was demonstrated when he embarked on taking pictures in the Paris sewers. Thus for the first time discoveries were required of the lens.”27 

In his politics, his friends, his inventions and his vision, Nadar was consistently and self-consciously a radical, even a prophet, glorying in both the new mediums and the new technical experiments that, he felt, were to change the world. This was a man who, more than any other photographer of his time, gloried in modernity, and set his sights toward the future. Yet the oeuvre of Nadar is marked by a profound ambivalence toward the modern world of progress in which he lived, and which he helped bring into being. Marshall Berman has written: “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. . . . We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern: from Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.”28 It is in this respect—in the paradoxes and contradictions that underlie his attitudes and accomplishments—that Nadar is most “fully modern,” and the importance of this ambivalence can best be grasped if one looks at his photographic work as a whole.

A full understanding of the above- and below­ground pictures can only be had by seeing them in the light of the justifiably famous studio portraits—likenesses of such spirits of the age as Baudelaire, Manet, Courbet, Delacroix, George Sand, and Sarah Bernhardt. Much has been said about these works, which often show their sitters in a two-thirds view against a plain backdrop, so I will not treat these pictures in depth here. What does interest me about this series, however, is the quality of “life”—not only spontaneity and intimacy, but of individual character—which is universally accepted by writers as diverse as Nigel Gosling and André Jammes, as the hallmark of these portraits.29 Nadar himself summed up his aims on this subject in a statement that served as evidence in a lawsuit against his brother in 1856:

The theory of photography can be learnt in an hour and the elements of practising it in a day. . . . What cannot be learnt is the sense of light, an artistic feeling for the effects of varying luminosity and combinations of it, the application of this or that effect to the features which confront the artist in you.

What can be learnt even less is the moral grasp of the subject—that instant understanding which puts you in touch with the model, helps you to sum him up, guides you to his habits, his ideas and his character and enables you to produce, not an indifferent reproduction, a matter of routine or accident such as any laboratory assistant could achieve, but a really convincing and sympathetic likeness, an intimate portrait.30

Nadar’s goal, in other words, was to “sum [his sitter] up,” to grasp the essence of “his habits, his ideas and his character” as they revealed themselves in time and light. For Nadar, as for Louis Blanc, the physical and the spiritual were inseparable: the physical appearance, perceived rightly, was itself the revelation of spiritual character. There is a double layer of time here, too, a presumption that there is an underlying character which is unchanging, yet which reveals itself in the moment. As a photographer, Nadar was searching for what Baudelaire perceived in Constantin Guys when he wrote, in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” that “he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.”31

 

This need to blend the ephemeral and the eternal, to reveal not only likeness but also character, might partially explain why, according to Nigel Gosling, Nadar “rarely accepted commissions for the ever-popular death bed pictures.”32 There were exceptions, though not many, to this rule: the poet Mme. Desbordes­Valmores and the writer Victor Hugo were two of them. The unity of the physical and the spiritual is lacking in a deathbed photograph, even of friends; there is only a static “likeness,” without the “moral” connotations of character revelation in time that Nadar saw as the raison d’être his portraiture. Unchanging, immobilized, permanently frozen, a dead body is only form—corporeal appearance without the spirit.

It stands to reason that such portraits were popular in Haussmann’s Paris—the beautiful city without a soul. Walter Benjamin has that “the cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offer[ed] a last refuge cult value of the picture,”33 These photographs had (as, in some parts of the world they still do) an undeniable importance in the death rite, and the playing-out of this role was one of the first and most widespread uses of the medium—especially in photography’s very early days, when long exposure times made it difficult to capture the likeness of an animated being. The deathbed picture was one of the nineteenth century’s major contributions to memory—a memory which had increasingly lost its home in the physical environment. Perceived as a nexus linking the this has been with the this is, the genre ramifies in meaning beyond any merely private attempt to hold on to what has been lost, so that the impulse to create a memory image from a body devoid of life comes to reflect in microcosm the Second Empire’s cultural attitudes toward death and the dead—attitudes that in the preceding years had undergone massive transformations.

The modern cult of death found its definitive form during the era of Haussmann. As Philippe Ariès has commented,34 the rituals of mortality become so completely naturalized in our society that we have forgotten their comparatively recent origins. Throughout the Middle Ages and to some extent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the attitude of the living toward dead was primarily one of indifference. The medieval practice of church-ground burial within the city ensured that the body was ad sanctos, as close as possible to the tombs of the saints and contained within a sacred space that would presumably maintain its protection. Beyond this basic precaution, however, the fate of the body itself was deemed of little importance. Besides the rich, who could be buried in personal sepulchers if they chose, most people were interred in unmarked common graves more or less close to the saint’s relics depending on the means of the deceased; periodically, when these graves were full and more space was needed, the soil was dug up, and the bones piled helter-skelter in charniers or the attics of the church. In other words, once buried, the sanctity of the individual body was not of particular concern: no one knew where the loved ones’ bones were, and no one cared.

This attitude, essentially unchanged for centuries, underwent massive convulsions over the course of the late 1700s through the mid-1850s. First manifesting itself as horror at the idea of decomposing corpses buried in the middle of the city, this cultural shift from indifference to revulsion soon prompted an emblematic shift in practice. Beginning in the 1780s, old cemeteries within the Paris city limits were closed, the bones found in the soil were moved to the newly opened Catacombs, and new cemeteries like Père­Lachaise (then on the outskirts of the city) were founded. The administrative government of Paris continued the same policy until the commencement of the Third Republic and laws on the deposition of the dead were always designed to keep them outside the realm of the living. But during the Second Empire, there was a remarkable and total change in the public opinion on this subject—a change which resulted in one of Haussmann’s most resounding urban planning defeats. The Prefect had decided to cease inhumations in the famous cemetery of Père­Lachaise, by that time within city limits, and to open a large burial ground in Méry-sur-Oise, a location far enough away from Paris to insure that the capital would never expand around it. He proposed that a special railroad be built to this cemetery, so that all burials would take place by rail, on a train maintained solely for that purpose.

 

The public was outraged and outcry against this plan was immediate. The arguments put forth by the plan’s detractors are telling, indeed, of new attitudes toward both death and memory. The leaders of the opposition to the new cemetery, interestingly enough, called themselves the “positivists”—but in this instance positivism represented not only an isolated, avant-garde philosophic position but a merger of the opinions of philosophers and the populace. A statement of May 29, 1881, signed by M. Lafitte, “Director of Positivism,” as well as by M. Magnin, a mechanic worker, and M. Bernard, an accountant, represented the opinion of the “Positivist Group,” fighting to keep the remains of their loved ones near them: “The cult of the dead, thus the establishment of tombs and places of sepulcher that alone really characterizes it, are part of the mother institutions belonging to all civilized populations; it is necessary to admit as a fundamental political principle that the cemetery, no less than the common house, the school or the temple, is one of the integral elements of families and municipalities, and one cannot in consequence have cities without cemeteries.”35 The ideas of Auguste Comte were also in evidence in the book Paris Without Cemeteries by a Dr. Robinet, which appeared in 1869. The book called for well-marked tombs which could be visited by survivors, and argued that the cult of the dead is a “constitutive element of the human order” and “a spontaneous link of the generations for the society as it is for the family.” And, according to Robinet, the link was to memory: “Man prolongs beyond death those who had succumbed before him. . . . He institutes for their memory a cult where his heart and spirit strive to assure them perpetuity.”36

In the same culture that ruptured the this has been and the this is of the city, memory became the only glue that could hold civilization together. Individual, well-marked tombs, like photographs, became the means to “assure the perpetuity” of people and thus the continuity of the species. The “Cult of Tombs” was originally conceived during the French Revolution, as a way to transform the religious feelings associated with death into secular ones.37 By the time of Haussmann, the tradition of burying the dead in individual sepulchers that were to be visited by loved ones was established as a cultural ideal (if not always an affordable reality).

The dead body, in other words, was no longer simply a worn-out vessel once used by the spirit of a person long gone; it in itself was the repository of memory. As Ariès states: “The modern cult of the dead is a cult of memory attached to the body, to the corporeal appearance.”38 Charles Kunstler goes so far as to say that in the eyes of the faithful, remains were as precious as if they were the person himself.39 The lines between life and death were, evidently, becoming increasingly blurred if a dead body, like a dead city, could live on in memory long after its spirit was gone. Like the discarded stones of old Paris, corpses were once the homes of “illustrious phantoms,” and the demands for continuity focused on them as the only bridge between the past and the present. When the spirit was evicted from the environment in the Industrial Age, it took up residence in the memorials to “great men and great things” that were once alive—a marble marker or a photograph on a piece of paper, which can wither and crumble in time.

 

III. Miasma

It may initially seem paradoxical that this death-in-life should be a major theme in the work of a man known, during the Second Empire, as the paragon of vitality—a man who indeed outlived all his contemporaries. Of course, the very fact that Nadar, as a portrait photographer, immobilized the images of the living, taking them out of the flow of time, automatically puts him in the mainstream of the cult of remembrance and retention. But by refusing to cater to the vogue for deathbed pictures, this photographer made it explicit that he, for one, did not confuse the remains of a man with the man himself. His particular understanding of death-in-life during the Second Empire, an understanding he shared with many avant-garde artists if not with the populace, is most evident in the three experimental series he did around Paris: the pictures of the Catacombs, the documentary records of the sewers and the aerial photographs of the city. When this man who was friends with everyone left his studio to work, he never photographed the life of his native city—its social events, its hustle and bustle, its commerce and recreation—even though such explorations were well within photography’s technical reach during the 1860s, as pictures by Adolphe Braun and the stereographic street photographers make clear. Rather, Nadar chose projects that by definition excluded people. Devoid of human subjects or activity, all of his Paris pictures are, in Victor Hugo’s words, about “reality and disappearance.”40 

In a sense, however, Nadar’s photographic journeys underground and in the air, undertaken within a three-year period from 1858 to 1861, were also time travels, voyages simultaneously exploring the past and the present of his native city in search of an elusive link. The photographs were, obviously, records of the then-present; they were taken at a particular historical moment, and, unlike such colleagues of his as Henri Le Secq and Charles Nègre, Nadar used his camera to document that moment rather than to express his nostalgia or preservationist instincts. He never sought out old stones, or corners filled with the past; it was not his style to make a memory­image out of a body devoid of life. He plunged, instead, right into the middle of Haussmann’s work, focusing on areas, especially in the sewer and aerial pictures, that were most characteristic of innovative nineteenth century urban planning. But in using his camera this way, Nadar found himself caught between the city he lived in and the city he loved and remembered—and in the conflict between the image in his mind and the image on the photographic plate, a time displacement of massive proportions occurred.

This disjunction is not particularly evident in the photographs themselves, but Nadar himself spells it out clearly in his little-known essay, “Le Dessus et le dessous de Paris” (“The Above and Below of Paris”), which was published in Paris­Guide. According to Jean Prinet and Antoinette Dilasser, the artist, when he began his underground series in 1861, had already promised both the above- and below-ground pictures, as well as an accompanying article, to Louis Ulbach for a book scheduled to appear in 1867, in time for the Universal Exhibition in Paris.41 Taking images and text together then, in the fashion intended by the artist, one gains a double insight into exactly how Nadar was “viewing” Paris, both through his eyes and through his mind. And what then stands revealed is the yawning chasm that apparently separated sight and sensibility for those unfortunate souls suffering from the malaise brought on by Haussmann’s transformation of the city.

Any discussion of Nadar’s vision of death-­in-life should, of course, begin with his pictures of the Catacombs. Before he could venture underground with his camera, he had to perfect the artificial light processes with which he had begun experimenting in 1858. Using Bunsen batteries, he invented a system of lights and reflectors for which he registered a patent on Feb. 4, 1861.42 These technical experiments must be seen, by the way, in the context of a photographic community within which the lines between art, science, invention and commercialism were not yet clearly drawn. Nadar had no formal art training, but many of his colleagues during the 1850s were painters who exhibited in the Salon and who nevertheless produced all manner of photographs—for expressive as well as technical or commercial purposes—as a way of exploring and expanding the vocabulary of the new visual medium. In the openness of its possibilities, the decade of the 1850s was a golden age of photography, and Nadar’s experiments took place in an environment where all explorations, of whatever sort, immediately became part of the ongoing dialogue.

 

Nadar perfected his artificial light arrangements by first taking portraits of his friends at night in his studio. Shortly thereafter, with the support of city officials (to whom he gave two sets of the finished photographs), he descended into the depths. The work was arduous, and by his accounts often frustrating. He visited first the sewers and then (using magnesium light instead of Bunsen batteries) the Catacombs. He emerged after three months underground with 100 pictures and the comment that he wouldn’t wish such work on his worst enemy.43

In order to understand Nadar’s attraction to such a project, it is important to recognize the horrific image of subterranean Paris that had persisted unchanged in the collective imagination since the late 18th century. By Nadar’s time, the reality of underground Paris had diverged radically from this image, but, as Baudelaire knew so well, “no human heart/changes half fast as a city’s face.”44 The best testament to persistence of the old, fearful image into Second Empire was Jean Valjean’s terrifying trek through the sewers in Les Misérables, published in 1862.45

In this, his best known novel, Victor Hugo compared the underbelly of Paris to a sponge,46 full of holes left by the stones which the city itself had been built. Over centuries, many of the old quarries had been overused or neglected, and by the 1770s Parisians became nervous that the ground under them was on the verge of collapse. Their terror was only confirmed by several appalling incidents, including one in 1778 when a fault opened, the ground caved in and seven people disappeared.47 This fear of the depths was exacerbated by the occasional ravages of the inadequate and faulty sewer system, nicknamed “The Stink-Hole.”48 Unexplored and uncontrollable, this site of unimaginable horrors lived up to its reputation in 1802, when it flooded to such an extent that its mire spread over Paris from the Champs-Elysée the Place des Victoires to the Rue de la Roquette. Probably the most terrifying manifestation of the “revolution” in the bowels of the earth, how was the spontaneous exhumation of the dead who, over centuries, had been buried in Cemetery of the Innocents, at the center of the city. The common graves were too crowded, the turnover so rapid that the bodies had no chance to decompose. Finally, one day in 1780, the pressure from the walls of a mass grave caused the walls of a basement adjacent to the putrid cemetery to burst—and hundreds of corpses in various states of decomposition spilled into someone’s house.49

 

It was this particular incident that ultimately led to the closing of the Cemetery of the Innocents and other burial grounds within the city, and thus to the opening in 1786 of Catacombs, in an old quarry near Mont­Rouge, then outside of the city limits. Richard Etlin has called the Catacombs the “only realization of a sublime landscape” in Paris,50 and it is clear that Nadar saw his descent into their depths as a Dantesque plunge. “We are going to penetrate, to reveal the arcana of the most profound secret caverns,” he wrote.51 In his fascination with death and debris, as well as in his compulsion to explore a landscape whose very function, was to subsume all traces of individuality within a great Nothingness, Nadar was, of course, a Romantic: he set himself in tireless pursuit of a sublime shiver in a realm where none of the reference points of normal life applied.

In the Catacombs, the entire premise underlying both the deathbed photograph and the cult of tombs was immediately negated. There, neither physical appearance nor historical accomplishment could preserve the individuality of dead; quite the contrary—it was the nature of the Catacombs to throw randomly together the bones of kings and criminals, philosophers and paupers, in the “confused equality of Death.”52 

Nadar’s essay, “Le Dessus et le dessous de Paris,” is full of comments about the bones and skulls that had been detached from their bodies and dispersed; about the people who “had loved, had been loved” and who were now an unrecognizable pile of silent debris “without name, forgotten, lost.” Even memory itself, he remarked, had been obliterated in this place “where all comes to vanish, even the memory of the father in the son.” Six million Parisian lives had ended there in oblivion and ruin. Indeed, a few of Nadar’s pictures suggest the weary melancholy of memento mori; particularly eloquent are the pictures that show skulls and bones lying heaped or randomly scattered in the recesses of dark, mysterious caves.

Among the latter is the image in which a skull and several bones, small and isolated, sit on the ground of a cavern steeped in shadows. This nature morte is almost centered, and it is highlighted by Nadar’s artificial light. But such dramatic treatment only emphasizes the insignificance of these tiny human remains, detritus which seems to float in the void of darkness dominating the photograph. Most of the picture plane is “empty” space, so the formal construction of the image is defined not by objects but by the patterns of light and darkness which encircle the soil and stones of the cave. The light might illuminate a skull or reveal, on the left and in the background, a lettered sign or some other vestige of human life. But it is clear also that this light is transitory and weak, soon to be swallowed by the shadows.

In this picture, the “sublime landscape” of which Etlin spoke is very much in evidence, and to that degree the image is anomalous, atypical of the series. For however tenaciously the collective imagination clung to its Romantic vision, the Catacombs were themselves a pure product of the Industrial Age. As with the rest of Hausmann’s Paris, the ideal of planning was dominant, so that even the sublime was orderly; even the void had roads, signs and direction.

 

At first the Catacombs consisted of nothing more than piles of bones, but beginning in 1810 the city government decided to strengthen the caverns and replace this haphazard arrangement with a new, nineteenth century kind of order: an order of walls and crossroads, of monuments and geometric designs. Construction at the site was, at the time of Nadar’s visit, in full swing as a result of the recent exhumation and transfer of large quantities of bones; the photographer even captured a wall of bones half built, a Second Empire work-in-progress.

The twelve workers assigned to the Catacombs were responsible for structuring the dispersed skeletal parts into neat walls, which, enlivened by decorative lines of skulls, were euphemistically called “facades.” The skulls composing the decorative designs were chosen for no other reason than their state of conservation. Devoid of any living significance, they became, as it were, “art for art’s sake.” And, as Nadar reports with more than a hint of irony, management was satisfied that these constructions “made the aspect [of the caverns] interesting, almost agreeable.” (So agreeable, in fact, that in 1874 they were definitively opened to the public as a tourist attraction, though visits had been allowed, on and off, since the days of Napoleon.)

It is this orderly, “constructed” aspect of the Catacombs—the aspect most visible during the Second Empire—that Nadar documented in most of his pictures. The photographs focus on the pathways and the walls of the caves; he often recorded the crossroads, where two walls, their diverse patterns and decorations, meet. This vantage point was chosen, for example, in one picture that, despite its subject matter, has lost all vestiges of the sublime landscape discussed earlier. In this particular image, culture has triumphed over the ravages of nature. Though darkness is a major element in almost all of the Catacomb pictures, here the light is stronger than in the picture discussed above, and it is focused on the walls of bones that, with their solidity and decorative embellishments, dominate the photograph. No longer tiny and scattered, the remains have become a human mass, though one divorced from any individualized human context or macabre association. Instead, the bones become building blocks in a larger, supra-personal construction, abstract in its geometric design.

The ground soil is neatly organized and clean here, free of unwanted detritus, and Nadar’s choice of vantage point emphasizes the efficiency of these crossroads as places of exchange—checkpoints in the orderly circulation of traffic, alive and otherwise, that flows through these once uncharted and mysterious caves.

This emphasis on movement and dynamism was appropriate, since Nadar also documented the markers which described the origins of various groups of bones, and the date they had been brought to the caves. For Nadar, as we have seen, the transfer of bones was a contemporary issue, not a historical one, and with the increasing number of cemetery closures throughout the nineteenth century, funeral cortèges carrying remains to their new resting place became a familiar sight. Nadar himself was aware of the specific transfers that took place in 1859 and 1860—the same period that the cult of tombs was reaching its apogee. It is, of course, one of the paradoxes of death in nineteenth century Paris that while prevailing wisdom insisted upon the new garden cemeteries like Père-Lachaise, where the deceased could rest peacefully and permanently in their own sepulchers, the bones of millions of former Parisians were in transit through the city streets. Small wonder that Nadar, writing about the Catacombs, came to the conclusion that “even death itself doesn’t guarantee us protection against expropriation.”

 

It seems that, in Haussmann’s Paris, the Empire of the Dead and the Empire of the Living obeyed similar laws: real-estate evictions affected city residents, “illustrious phantoms” and ancestors alike. What’s more, in this city at this time, real-estate transactions never took place without a considerable part scripted for construction workers. It hardly seems surprising, then, that Nadar habitually included one of their number in his pictures as well. Obviously he couldn’t ask a living man to pose for the necessary 18-minute exposure time (though he did make one self-portrait in the Catacombs), so he made do with a mannequin that he brought along with him. Flexible, versatile and “lifelike,” this mannequin pushes wagons, shovels and bones in numerous pictures, a strangely compelling symbol of the “living” among the one-alive in an era in which the boundaries between life and death had begun to blur. Given the emphasis on roadways, movement and “active” work, Nadar’s Catacombs don’t seem like a place where the words “Nothingness” or “Vain Grandeur, silence! Eternity!” should be inscribed on the walls.53 They seem, indeed, like a pretty busy place: continually in process, geared toward circulation, redistribution and change.

The same, though to a much greater extent, is true of Nader’s sewers. These he saw as forming a vast network, a system geared toward “a permanent evolution”54—though he did look for a sewer that could live up to its reputation for being “the black rendez-vous of the immense Nothingness.” To Nadar, as to Victor Hugo, the sewers represented the Romantic “synthesis of all our Parisian life”: the ending of civilization, the place where history, individuality and societal distinctions dissolved into the primal ooze. Hugo wrote in Les Misérables:

The history of men is reflected in the history of the cloacae. In old Paris, the sewer is the rendez-vous of all depletions and attempts. . . . The sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge into it and are confronted with one another. In this lurid place there is a darkness, but there are no secrets. Each thing has its real form, or at least its definitive form. . . . All the uncleanliness of civilization, once it is out of service, falls into this pit of truth, where the immense slippage is brought to an end. . . . Here, no more false appearances . . . absolute nakedness. . . . nothing more but what is, wearing the sinister face of what is ending.55 

Yet Hugo, like Nadar, was only too well aware that this image of the romantic, mysterious sewer—like the Old Paris it had served—had already slipped into the past, a casualty of history. Or rather, the image was still alive, but physical reality no longer corresponded to it; and clearly Hugo preferred the old days, when there was “mire, but soul.”56 For the nineteenth century had decided that waste, like corpses, must be subject to order and control in the City of the Industrial Age. The Parisian underground of the 1860s was the product of an administrative decision that the Age of Reason must shed its light into the depths; no longer repositories of fear, those depths acquired, during the Second Empire, “an official aspect.”57 The sewers Nadar found—”neat, cold, straight, correct”58—were the new sewers, the ones that Haussmann had built. The Prefect and Eugène Belgrand, his head of Water and Sewer Services (and the man who gave Nadar permission to work underground), were, in 1861, in the midst of revamping, extending and rebuilding the entire sewer network. By 1870 Paris had 348 miles of sewers, four times the total in 1851; a system of collectors had been built to carry all waste water to the Seine below Paris; and a new, more efficient series of egg­shaped galleries, constructed of hydraulic cement, had been built to carry not only water and waste but mechanical cleaning machines called “sluice cars.”59 

These are the sewers that were visible to Nadar’s camera in 1861. His pictures of the channels, crossroads, arcades and machinery are clean-lined, geometric, indeed among the most abstract works produced during the Second Empire. Just as there were (to his amazement and suspicion) no signs of rats or poisons here, there were also no hints of the mystery or foulness that had inspired such horror of the “Stink­Hole.” All smelly vestiges of the past—like the stones of the city and the bones of its dead—had been laundered by the new efficient underground system, geared toward the perpetual “circulation of mud.”

Nadar’s points of view in his sewer photographs were chosen to express this constant movement. The images are most often constructed on the diagonal or in such a way that the sewer galleries plunge rapidly back into deep space, giving the photographs a dynamism most often associated at the time with pictures of the new, wide boulevards (by Charles Marville, for example) or the railroads (as photographed by Edouard-Denis Baldus). His image of the galleries under the Pont au Change, for instance, depicts the architectural arcade, almost centered in the picture, as it recedes into darkness. But this balanced composition is set in motion by the abstract forms which surround it—and which forge numerous links between this picture and the Constructivist works of the first quarter of the 20th century. The open-ended egg-shaped gallery encircling the arcade swings the image toward the left, a movement reiterated by the horizontal tracks of the sluice cars. Since this is a crossroad, the tracks moving on the diagonal from left to right are intersected by others plunging back into deep space, their linear forms enlivened by the circles of the turntable between them and the stripes of a grill in the middle ground.

This dynamism is also evident in the photograph of a sluice car stationed in the Chambre du Pont Notre Dame, but here it is enhanced by a drama of light and darkness. Nadar’s lighting equipment, installed on a modified car, is completely visible in this image (and, it should be added, its mechanical forms seem completely at home in this environment). The picture moves on the diagonal from lower left to middle right, and the light, too, is aimed in that direction; its intense illumination at the center of the photograph serves to highlight the architectural geometries and the funnel-like form of the gallery, which seems to pull both light and machinery into the recesses of darkness at the right.

 

As an image of pure motion, though, probably nothing in Nadar’s oeuvre surpasses his picture of the crossroads of the collectors. Emphasizing its function as a place of exchange, Nadar has photographed the intersection in such a way that the viewer can see the two galleries meet in the foreground and then separate as they sweep backward: one toward the left and the other toward the right. Their plunge into the spatial depths is reinforced by the spiraling forms of the pipes which line the side walls, and which lead the eye backward to the brilliant “light at the end of the tunnel” on the left. Large in the foreground and then radically foreshortened as they move toward the rear, these pipes catch the highlights in such a way that they seem to become dematerialized forms of motion. Maybe at one time the Parisian sewers were a stopping place, an ending, a final graveyard of the slime and debris of history. In 1861, however, the slime moved ceaselessly through this underground city—an unpeopled metropolis whose roads and lights, like those of the refurbished city above, had been carefully planned to facilitate the circulation of traffic. Indeed, these subterranean thoroughfares even sported, as Nadar’s pictures often show, their own street signs corresponding to the ones aboveground.

This correspondence was, of course, not lost on people living in Paris during the Second Empire. Hugo himself wrote that “Paris has another Paris under herself: a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.”60 But when Charles Kunstler speaks of the underground as the “Double of Paris,” and describes it as the “City of Shadows,” he is expressing in the 20th century a romantic conception which, Nadar found, was not even appropriate by the second half of the nineteenth.61 Far from being a shadowy counterpart of its sister city above, the Parisian underground was already, in Nadar’s time, an exact reflection of that newly ordered municipality—right down to the specifics of its architecture, since the sewers comprised a space “where each discharging mouth is an arcade [and] the Rue de Rivoli sets the fashion even in the cloaca.”62 Nadar’s photographs document a subterranean city whose shadows had been vanquished by gas lights; the shades of the past, of the dead, of the used up and discarded were being flooded with the light of Reason—and the artificial light from Nadar’s own equipment.

For Nadar’s desire to map and make public mysterious realms heretofore uncharted by the camera was, in itself, a part of the zeitgeist of Haussmannization. The Prefect himself had provided the city with its first accurate survey map; Nadar, journeying into the depths of the earth and the past, emerged with the first photographic records of the once invisible underbelly of Paris. Three years before that, he had succeeded in mapping the city from above: it was he who, using an aerial balloon, took the first bird’s­ eye-view photographs of Paris.

 

IV. Maps

In his book, Memoires du Géant, Nadar explained how his interest in aerial photography was a natural outgrowth of his interest in mapping. Specifically, he was seeking alternatives to the laborious and inaccurate processes of surveying necessary to transcribe a bird’s-eye-view.63 His pioneering work once again involved a patent and much experimentation, since the obstacles to his efforts included not only the motion of the balloon’s gondola, but also escaping gas (which ruined the initial plates) and his equipment’s overall weight (which he was to offset only by removing some of his clothes before takeoff). Nadar built “Le Géant,” a balloon six times normal size, as a publicity stunt to. earn money for his real obsession, heavier-than-air flying machines. In his insistence that machines would finally conquer the skies—as well as in his strategic use of the balloon during the Siege of Paris to deliver the first “air mail”–he was uncommonly foresighted. However, here as elsewhere, this artist’s prophecies looked backward as much as forward, drawing their inspiration, Janus-like, from the past: in essence Nadar’s attraction to flying was a Romantic one. His passion for the skies was based on a search for the Sublime, for what he called the “infinite voluptuousness of silence.” He elaborated in Le Dessus et le dessous de Paris”:

There only complete detachment, real solitude. . . . [In] the limitless immensity of these hospitable and benevolent spaces where no human force, no power of evil can reach you, you feel yourself living for the first time, because you enjoy as never before the plenitude of your health of soul and body, and the proud feeling of your liberty invades you. . . . The healthy attitude that now distances you reduces all things to the proportions of truth. . . . In this supreme isolation, in this superhuman spasm, . . . the body forgets itself; it exists no longer, and the detached soul is going to surprise the mysterious word of eternal problems. . . .64 

Isolation, silence, the body forgotten, reduced to the proportions of truth: in such terms did the Romantic imagination cast all places and experiences—from the sewers to the skies—which transcended normal reference points of time and space. The Sublime connections between death and ballooning had been drawn by the architect Boullée as early as 1784 (on the heels of the Montgolfier brothers’ flight) in his design for a cenotaph to Newton: a huge, empty spherical structure, illuminated to resemble alternatively the radiant sun and the night sky. In this vast “landscape” where normal spatial relations and markers were suspended, the architect wanted the viewer to experience the immensity of the cosmos described by the great physicist and astronomer: a cosmos “in which the onlooker finds himself as if by magic floating in the air, borne in the wake of images in the immensity of space.”65 

Nadar looked to the skies, as he looked to the sewers and Catacombs, in his quest for a Void where the spirit could be free—where, liberated from normal physical and societal laws, the “detached soul” could experience what he called “The Soul of the Earth.” But it was only in the highest reaches of the clouds that he found the death that liberates, that allows one to “feel [oneself] living for the first time.” When he not up but down at his native city, he found a death of another sort entirely.

 

That death, of course, is not visible in the pictures, of which there are few. The photographs show us Haussmann’s Paris, as it stood in 1858. Nadar’s balloon took off from the Champs de Mars and the Paris he glimpsed therefore was the Paris of the northwest, the area most built up by the Prefect to accommodate the residential movements of the rich bourgeoisie. The picture labeled the “First Result” shows the new roads, as well as buildings and landmarks like the Parc Monceau, the Russian Church, Montmartre in the distance and the Arc de Triomphe, at the lower right and cut by the frame. The Arc is the centerpiece of another picture, taken from closer down, as the Etoile on which it stood was the centerpiece of Haussmann’s urban scheme, and his favorite accomplishment. Lacking horizon lines and flattening deep space, an image like this one shows the geometric sweeps of the great avenues, as they demarcate the land and unify monuments, buildings and neighborhoods into one total spectacle of the urban environment.

Though these are the first aerial photographs, there are precedents for this type of imagery in earlier bird’s-eye maps and paintings, as well as in panoramic photographs. Neither panoramic photographs nor sweeping overviews taken from high vantage pints focus on isolated or specific objects; instead they depict the relationships between the various elements which together up the interlocking fabric of the city. Frédéric Martens was producing daguerreotype panoramas early in the 1840s; Hippolyte Bayard worked in a similar fashion by the mid-1840s, and such views showed up frequently in the albums and exhibitions of the 1850s. But this type of imagery was to become an important part of the popular mainstream by the 1860s—at the point when the effects of Haussmann’s new network of boulevards, many of them completed or in the process of completion, were first making themselves strongly felt in the life of the city.

In his aerial photograph of the Arc de Triomphe, Nadar has documented this process of transition. Only four wide streets are clearly visible here (ultimately twelve were built), and they radiate from the Etoile, serving as the “arteries in the urban circulatory system”66 which Paris was rapidly becoming. It is by means of these roads, which themselves provide the order shaping the organism of the city, taking precedence in scale and importance over monuments, buildings and neighborhoods, that one best understands Haussmannization. For the Prefect’s new city was about circulation: about traffic, efficient movement and, as Nadar said about the sewers, “permanent evolution.” In the clean sweep of their diagonals, in their geometrical organization, in their focus on crossroads and places of exchange, the photographs of Paris itself are indeed the “doubles” of the photographs of the underground. Though their subjects differ widely, the underlying structures of the photographs in all three series are very much related, because the new urban order was everywhere. All of Nadar’s documentary images of Paris, whether taken above or below the ground, are about dynamism, circulation, change—and, as a result, about a new, thoroughly modern kind of death.

To Nadar in the 1850s and 1860s, change spelled the doom of the this has been. When he looked down from his balloon at his native city, he could not recognize what he saw; he was “like a traveller who arrived yesterday in a strange city.” In this new Paris, one couldn’t “take two steps without falling in the quagmire of some new embellishment, conceived in its maturity from the eve to the night, decreed in the morning, and executed a quarter of an hour before.” This, in his mind, was a “transformed, confused Paris . . . [where] all is changed, upset, ideas, things, even names.” His photographs might be static, frozen, stopped in the flow of time, but they describe a place where “all that is provisional is eternal, except the governments. . . .Of marble here, there is nothing, and I am among those who will have nothing to claim at the hour when the definitive bill is presented: the True.”

The True. In his Paris pictures as in his portraits, Nadar was searching for the eternal in the ephemeral—and he found, whether in the Catacombs, the sewers or the city itself, only the transitory, whose definitive price was the sacrifice of the True. “I hope,” he wrote in “Le Dessus et dessous de Paris,” at the start of his journey into the air, “that we will finish by finding the heart of this place.” What he found instead was that there was no heart, no eternal truth left, that it too had been demolished and rebuilt in this metropolis where the only constant was change. This new, shiny, bustling city was a this is without a this has been, and so, for Nadar, it existed no longer: “It is no longer Paris, my Paris that I know, where I was born. . . . I no longer know how to find myself in that which surrounds me.”

 

Nadar’s pilgrimages into the underground and the sky must, ultimately, be seen as searches for himself: for the memories, dreams, mysteries and images which he attached to the place of his birth. He brought with him the most modern technologies; he documented and mapped in the most accurate, detailed way possible; he was able to stop, in his prints, the flow of time and change. But even the most advanced image-making techniques couldn’t retrieve the subjectivity, the soul, the truth of a place where “they have destroyed everything, down to the last souvenir, . . . [where] something of us has gone away.” The Paris that Nadar and his camera see is one in which there are no people—and not only because they are too far away, too small to see from a balloon or too quick for exposure times underground. Rather, Nadar’s is a Paris from which all traces of people have “gone away,” leaving a city full of physical objects, even “exterior charm,” but empty, dead, devoid of spirit. Nadar, like Louis Blanc, saw in the transformation of Paris the end of memory; the end of the unaffected merging of the physical and spiritual, of the past and present; the end, that is, of life. In looking at Haussmann’s Paris, the artist might as well have been contemplating the Catacombs, where dispersed skulls and sternum bones consigned to oblivion all history and subjectivity. For he whose life had begun and unfolded in this place could find no trace of himself in this strange city: of his past, of his emotional bonds, of the memories which formed the unchanging image of Paris in his mind.

As the sewers attempted to launder the city’s filth, so this new Paris tried to wash away those very memory traces of the Self that personalize urban space. Nadar nonetheless knew, sadly, that the “illustrious phantoms” never disappear. As he surveyed the “official,” clean, orderly sewers, he cautioned his readers to remember that “poison is no less poison for being latent.” He felt the same way as he viewed his native city from a balloon. Haussmann might have succeeded in changing the face of Paris, but he could only dispossess, and never destroy, the past. Nadar knew that the “shadows” of Paris persisted too, latent in the handsome boulevards, splendid cafés and grand monuments—and to him they were the poison that was destined to kill all life and love in this City of the Industrial Age.

For these shadows were now forced to dwell exclusively in the minds of Paris’s inhabitants, alienating them irreparably from any unmitigated experience of the metropolis. Baudelaire best described this disjunction between the external world and his internal perception of it in his poem “The Swan”:

Paris changes . . . but in sadness like mine
nothing stirs—new buildings, old
neighborhoods turn to allegory
and memories weigh more than stone.67 

Both Baudelaire and Nadar were living in a time warp: a historical moment when “memories weigh[ed] more than stone” while the stones of the city crumbled like paper; when mental images remained immobile, while the world did not. Experience itself, in this context, became like a photograph: “motionless, [it] flow[ed] back[ward],” while the city around it swam on in time, caught up in a “permanent evolution” of progress and change.

This is, of course, the same evolution documented in Nadar’s Paris pictures, static images caught up in the dynamism of Haussmann’s world. Here lies the final paradox of Nadar’s photographs of Paris: motionless though they are, they refuse to flow backward. In this they are the diametric opposites of the famous portraits. Both series, in different ways, involved Nadar’s search for the Self. In the portraits, that Self was a living presence; it revealed its eternity in its ephemera, it spoke its spirit in physical form. For that reason, these pictures are very much about the preservation of life, and thus of memory. In the Paris pictures, on the other hand, Nadar chose to document the sites from which the Self had been evicted, in which there was nothing left to preserve. No matter how much light he shed, no matter how detailed a map he made, the pictures could, finally, only be records of absence, of death: of a this is severed from its this has been, and thus severed from its roots in time. His static photographs could document the changing, dynamic city, but they were powerless to retrieve those memory-images which gave Paris its eternal meaning, and which now found their final resting place in the artist’s heart. For a camera could not remember, it could only record; it could not feel, it could only see. It could never, therefore, express that Truth which existed in the chasm between Nadar’s eye and his mind.

So his pictures do not attempt to preserve the past, or express his nostalgia, or serve as memory substitutes. They function, rather, as Barthesian “countermemories”: images which “block memory . . . [because they] fill the sight by force, and because in them nothing can be refused or transformed.”68 They, like the metropolis they depict, fill the eye with spectacles that exist without past and without future: this is for all eternity. To Nadar and his friends, there was no transformation possible in Haussmann’s Paris, for in spite of all the hustle and bustle this city could no longer move in time—a movement that must go backward to go forward. And there could be no substitute for memory. Photography could record the physical appearance of the city, but it could no more build a bridge between the past and the present than it could resurrect the body of Victor Hugo. This comparison, it seems, is particularly apt. Perhaps the Paris pictures are, in fact, Nadar’s most ironic contribution to deathbed photography.