Photographing the Dark Nadar’s Descent into the Paris Catacombs

Today the Paris Catacombs are illuminated by electric lights and friendly guides. But when Félix Nadar descended into this “empire of death” in the 1860s artificial lighting was still in its infancy: the pioneering photographer had to face the quandary of how to take photographs in the subterranean dark. Allison C. Meier explores Nadar’s determined efforts (which involved Bunsen batteries, mannequins, and a good deal of patience) to document the beauty and terror of this realm of the dead.

October 25, 2019

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Façade n°19 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar in 1861 — Source.

Few nineteenth-century Parisians saw the city like Félix Nadar. In 1863, he ascended in a huge airship called Le Géant, from which he captured aerial views of a rapidly changing metropolis. Under the urban renewal program led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, old buildings were being demolished and replaced with broad boulevards, bringing uniformity and order to the narrow, winding medieval streets. But not all the changes that Paris was undergoing were visible from above. Public health had become an issue in the increasingly crowded capital, and a novel underground infrastructure was modernizing its management of waste. Around the same time Nadar ascended into the air, he descended into the pitch-dark tunnels of the city’s sewers and catacombs, where he pioneered the use of artificial light to reveal a new, previously unseen world.

Today, the catacombs of Paris are a major attraction. Timed tickets are sold to manage the large queue that forms daily outside a nondescript entrance on the Place Denfert-Rochereau (formerly called the Place d’Enfer, or “Hell Square”). A new graphic identity features a logo that cleverly hides a skull in a “C”, while a recently added gift shop sells all manner of skull-adorned souvenirs and magnets reading “Keep Calm and Remember You Will Die”.

While the signage might now be sleeker, and photographs of the skull-lined walls are abundant, the catacombs retain some of the mystery that drew Nadar. They were already a curiosity for adventurous tourists in the early nineteenth century; a line that guided torch-carrying visitors is still visible on the ceiling of the entry tunnel. Nadar’s photographs, however, helped make the catacombs a popular destination. As the urbanist Matthew Gandy writes in The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination, the “subterranean photographs of Nadar played a key role in fostering the growing popularity of sewers and catacombs among middle-class Parisians, and from the 1867 Exposition onward the city authorities began offering public tours of underground Paris.” 1

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Walk in the sewers of Paris — Rue du Château-d’Eau; illustration of Morin from a photograph by Nadar, 1865 — Source.

When Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who later adopted the pseudonym Nadar, was born in 1820, Paris was under the Bourbon monarchy. Although old medieval streets still wound through the city, an 1820s building boom supported by capital freed from the pricey Napoleonic campaigns was fueling mass land speculation and building projects.2 As opposed to the later Haussmann planning, this was privately funded and developed construction. In the 1830s, under the reign of King Louis-Philippe, prefect Claude-Philibert de Rambuteau led revitalization efforts like paving sidewalks and adding boulevards to alleviate the crowded streets of the city center. This was partly to get traffic flowing, but it was also a response to epidemics, such as the cholera epidemic of 1832, which were blamed on the unhealthy close quarters. (A series of 1830s riots in these working-class neighborhoods also revealed how the narrow streets lent themselves to barricade building.)

When Napoleon III came to power in 1848, the large-scale reconstruction overseen by Haussmann modernized the city with scarce sentimentality for the past. It was this metamorphosis that drew Nadar’s eye. As the historian Shelley Rice observed in a 1988 essay for Art in America:

He never sought out old stones, or corners filled with the past; it was not his style to make a memory image 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.3
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One of Nadar's many photographs of the Paris sewers, ca. 1864–5 — Source.

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“The Arc de Triomphe and the Grand Boulevards, Paris, from a Balloon”, taken by Nadar using a multi-lensed camera, 1868 — Source.

Although he spent a brief time studying medicine, by age twenty Nadar had devoted his career to the literary arts and photography. In 1855, he opened his first photography studio with his brother. With his tall frame, red hair, and broad mustache, he cut a striking figure — one he reinforced through the pervasive use of the color red in his studio’s exterior and interior, including the huge letters spelling out his name in red gaslight on the building. He took portraits of the famed figures of the day, such as Victor Hugo, George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac. Always an innovator when it came to photographic methods, he used the then-new collodion process with glass-plate negatives that could produce more copies than the one-off daguerreotype.

He also pioneered new approaches to artificial light. With a wired series of Bunsen “batteries”, he was able to generate enough electric light to take a photograph in darkness. In an era when photography was closely linked with natural light from the sun, taking this technique into the darkest realms of Paris was radical. It was not easy. He initially experimented with the batteries — invented by German chemist Robert Bunsen in the 1840s using a chemical reaction of metal and acid — in his studio. He described in his memoirs how the radiance at night would “stop the crowd on the boulevard.” And it drew customers into Nadar’s studio “like moths to light”.4

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Souvenir of the electric-light photography demonstration in the salons at the La Presse scientifique circle, Félix Nadar, April 1859 — Source.

The next challenge was to transport his experiment underground. It is difficult to date exactly when Nadar went into the sewers and catacombs. “The date given is either 1861 or 1865, but the assumption is that [the photographs] resulted from a single three-month campaign”, art historian Sylvie Aubenas writes in a catalogue essay for a 1994 Musée d’Orsay exhibition of Nadar’s work. “Nadar himself, in his writings, invariably speaks about these two expeditions as if they had occurred conjointly.”5 At least one example of his catacombs photographs was exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, placing his descent around 1861.

By the 1860s, the catacombs were already an established infrastructure for dealing with the centuries of dead who had long been buried in urban churchyards and burial grounds. Like many major cities, Paris had recently reached a crisis where its former ways of interring the deceased were no longer sustainable.

Eighteenth-century Parisian burial grounds were unpleasant places. One of the oldest and largest was the Cimetière des Innocents, where Parisians had been interred since the twelfth century. It bordered the busy central market of Les Halles, and though there had been attempts to keep the living and the dead separate — such as a wall constructed under King Philippe II Auguste — the market activity still regularly spilled onto the graves, where the odors of decomposing corpses mingled with the hawkers’ detritus. As disease was frequently attributed to miasmas, or bad air, there was concern that this noxious mix could be dangerous or even fatal. Then there was a ghastly 1780 incident in which the ground in a neighboring cellar broke open and threw corpses into the basement of a house. Medical expert Antoine-Alexandre Cadet de Vaux gave a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences deploring the “cadaverous exhalations”.6 The cemetery was finally closed, but what to do with the dead remained an open question.

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Crypte n°8 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar, 1861 _ Source.

Another calamity suggested a solution. Paris had been constructed on a massive deposit of calcium sulfate, or gypsum. This distinctive stone with its shellfish fossils had been quarried for local building material from the development of the Roman city Lutetia to the construction of the Louvre and Notre-Dame. All that mining resulted in extensive tunnels under the city. Most people gave little thought to these quarries until a series of 1770s catastrophes. In 1774, a mine collapse consumed a large section of a street; in 1778, a building was devoured. The Inspection Générale des Carrières was established to inspect and repair the mines, also revealing for the first time the full extent of the tunnels. By 1785, the skeletons of the Cimetière des Innocents and other burial grounds were being carted, night after night, into these quarries.

At first they were simply piled in heaps, but in the early 1800s Inspector Héricart de Thury spearheaded a more thoughtful arrangement. Skulls and bones were arranged in patterns, rows, and crosses; altars and columns were installed below the earth. Plaques with evocative quotations were added to encourage visitors to reflect on mortality. In 1809, tourists began to file into this immersive memento mori. Just before this opening, de Thury stated that he “believed it was necessary to take special care in the conservation of this monument, considering the intimate rapport that will surely exist between the Catacombs and the events of the French Revolution.”7 This rapport included the mass burial of the victims of the 1792 September Massacres, during which hundreds of prisoners were executed for fear they might join the counterrevolutionary forces.

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Quote from Virgil in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar in 1861 — Source.

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Façade n°11 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar in 1861 — Source.

In many ways, this empire of death below the streets mirrored the shifts happening in the world above. Although the catacombs were named before the Revolution, the evocation of the ancient Roman catacombs reflected the same fascination with classical influences seen during the 1780s and ’90s, when Revolutionaries cited the Roman Senate in their speeches and adopted the Phrygian cap as a symbol of liberty. There was also an equality of classes in the underground ossuary. Without monuments or names, no one corpse could be elevated above the others, and the sight of all those bones together made the thought of distinguishing one from the other absurd. In his essay “Paris Above and Below”, originally published in the Paris-Guide, par les principaux écrivains et artistes de la France released alongside the Exposition Universelle of 1867, Nadar relates this mortal scene:

In the egalitarian confusion of death, a Merovingian king remains in eternal silence next to those massacred in September ’92. The Valois, Bourbons, Orléans, Stuarts, end up rotting indiscriminately, lost between the wretched of the Court of Miracles and the two thousand “of the religion” that were killed on the night of St. Bartholomew.8

To this litany of royal and impoverished dead from French history, he adds the names of revolutionary victims and perpetrators like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. All are together, with “every trace implacably lost in the uncountable clutter of the most humble, the anonymous”.9

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Crypte n°9 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar, 1861 — Source.

It was the post–de Thury version of the catacombs that Nadar witnessed, one which mixed the fragments of the departed with a modern design for death. In The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, Adam Begley describes how Nadar worked with the “inconveniences” of the Bunsen batteries in the catacombs: “The dozens of Bunsen cells, wired in series, were too bulky to transport down certain narrow subterranean passages, so on occasion he had to leave some of the batteries up on the street and run leads down to his chosen location.”10 All of this was time consuming and only sporadically successful, leading one of Nadar’s assistants to moan “We’re growing old here”.11

Yet Nadar succeeded in creating the first photographic documentation of this realm of the dead. The geometry of the walls of skulls is revealed in stark contrasts; long shots down tunnels give the viewer a sense of claustrophobic unease, with their framing of the low ceilings and seemingly endless bones. There are even photographs that highlight the grim labor of hauling and stacking the skeletal remains in this space. Because the exposure time could be as long as eighteen minutes, Nadar used a mannequin instead of a live worker. As he explained:

I had judged it advisable to animate some of these scenes by the use of a human figure — less from considerations of picturesqueness than in order to give a sense of scale, a precaution too often neglected by explorers in this medium and with sometimes disconcerting consequences. For these eighteen minutes of exposure time, I found it difficult to obtain from a human being the absolute, inorganic immobility I required. I tried to get round this difficulty by means of mannequins, which I dressed up in workmen’s clothes and positioned in the scene with as little awkwardness as possible.12
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Mannequin in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar, 1861 — Source.

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Mannequin by the bones from the old cemetery of Tour Saint Jacques deposited in 1859 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar, 1861 — Source.

The only catacombs photograph with a living person is a self-portrait in which Nadar sits against a wall of bones, photographic chemicals from the collodion emulsion process at his feet, providing a glimpse of his own long labor behind the lens. In another image, a magnesium lamp is visible in the lower right-hand corner, reminding the viewer that light is only coming into this place through great human effort.

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Self-portrait by Nadar in the Paris Catacombs, 1861 — Source.

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Paris Catacombs with the source of light bottom right, photographed by Nadar, 1861 — Source.

Despite the cumbersome equipment, its malfunctions, and the malodorous fumes of the batteries and magnesium, Nadar persisted in his quest to capture what had never been photographed. In the sewers, he again trundled in his mannequin, chemicals, and heavy camera to visualize its soaring tunnels and pipes. Walter Benjamin later wrote of these photographs that it was “the first time that the lens is given the task of making discoveries”.13

Nadar mostly retired from photography in 1873, though he continued to take the occasional portrait until his death in 1910. He wrote about his adventures in the catacombs again in his memoir, When I Was a Photographer (1899), where he recreates a visit to the catacombs with himself as the guide: “You do not know the Catacombs, madam; permit me to lead you there. Please take my arm and — let us follow the people!”14 Together with Nadar the reader descends “the interminable and slippery staircase”, following the “smoky smell of this succession of candles” as the procession of tourists enters the ossuary.15 He remarks that this “is the parade of the grand names of France as well as the small ones”, and that even the “fragment that your foot just bumped into, this debris without a name, is perhaps one of your grandfathers.”16 Curious sights are mingled with the bones, like a stone basin in which someone has released a few fish to swim blindly in the dark.

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Façade n°9 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Nadar in 1861 — Source.

“What human vanity, what pride could stand before this final, inevitable promiscuity of our ashes?” Nadar wonders.17 Yet he also records that some people in this place of death laugh as they light their lanterns before journeying into the tunnels. In a guestbook installed in the catacombs in 1809 by de Thury, reactions indeed range from heavy meditations on mortality to mirth. One visitor in 1811 wrote: “They were what I am, and I will be what they are”;18 another quipped: “I’ve seen death, it is in front of my eyes, but my stomach is grumbling, and I’d much rather eat”.19

There is still this mix of reactions to the catacombs — down where some walk loudly making jokes and taking selfies while others stare quietly at the stacked skulls. Unlike in Nadar’s day, electricity now lights the tunnels. Still, at regular corners are closed gates to off-limits passages where darkness endures, a reminder that this accessible section is just a part of a sprawling labyrinth that spreads like veins beneath the city, a shadow of its development that Nadar first brought to light.

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed stories to Lapham's Quarterly, National Geographic, the New York Times, CityLab, Wellcome Collection, and other publications on art, architecture, and history. Previously, she was a staff writer at Hyperallergic and senior editor at Atlas Obscura. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.