Logo BNF

The Nadars, a photographic legend

IV. Les innovations

The Nadars


Félix Nadar: Underground Paris

From the Romantic Tradition to Modern Technology
by Bernd Stiegler
Paris sewer-system tour; Rue du Château d'Eau, Illustration de Morin d’après une photographie de Nadar, 1865
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department, VA-290 (3)-FOL
In the early 1860s, Félix Nadar went down, first into the catacombs of Paris and then the city’s sewers, to photograph them with the help of electrical lighting that he had patented himself. One way to understand the project is to take the novel Les Misérables, published in 1862, as a guide. Nadar knew the novel, and admired its author, Victor Hugo, greatly. The 1861 catacomb series was taken as a sort of trial balloon for the usefulness of artificial lighting and the appeal of photos made with it for a broad public. The sewer series of 1863-64, on the other hand, was made in response to Hugo and to the “Haussmannisation” of Paris, i.e. the transformation of the French capital by Baron Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine department who, from June 1853 to January, 1870, subjected the capital to drastic modernization.
It is interesting to note that Félix Nadar never sought to photograph that reorganization, which turned the city into a pile of ruins for several years. He did however, go below ground in order to apprehend the new, modern Paris, and he did it with Victor Hugo’s novel in mind. Having observed on the barricades of the June 1832 uprising that the situation was hopeless, Jean Valjean, the main character of Les Misérables, goes down into the sewers in order to save Marius, his adoptive daughter Cosette’s sweetheart, and to escape. In the plot, Paris below ground is the realm of darkness and crime. The novel itself, as Hugo emphasized, is a sort of allegory, “a struggle between the allegorical powers of light and darkness, good and evil, happiness and misery.” The belowground sewers also play a decisive role, both as a metaphor and as a recurrent motif. Hugo even devotes a chapter to the sewers’ past, present and future, in the shape of a digression entitled “\_The Intestine of the Leviathan\_” which does not advance the novel’s plot in the slightest. It is remarkable that in this somewhat verbose digression, the narrator sheds the action’s temporality, for what he is describing was not set in 1832, but at the time that the author was writing. Hugo’s description is practically the program for the sewer tour that Nadar undertook a few years after his tour of the catacombs. In most of the novel, Hugo follows the Romantic tradition; in the digression, however, he enumerates all of the sewer’s economic uses, including fertilizing soil. Nadar’s two series correspond to these those two moments in time: the catacomb series still seeks the allegorical residues of the Romantic tradition; the sewer series systematically explores modernism. And it finds nothing less than a perfect reorganization of belowground Paris, in the wake of Haussmannization.
Eugène Belgrand, to whom Haussmann entrusted the mission, started out by systematically separating spring water from river water: water from the Seine would be used for “public service;” spring water, for “private service,” i.e. in private homes. The latter was drawn from springs far from Paris and brought in via purpose-built aqueducts. The system of waste-water disposal was also redesigned. The point was to funnel all of the city’s waste water to one place, and then to control its discharge into the Seine in Asnières, a town downriver of the capital. The Seine’s looping path made it possible to reach the river well downstream of the city center without having to build excessively long sewers. So the over-arching idea was to arrange water conveyance and disposal in such a way that an uninterrupted water flow would be guaranteed, and that every single home would be connected to the network, neither of which were givens at that time. Most homes got their water from pits or public fountains back then. Flow and connections were the goals of the aboveground restructuration as well. The destruction of old Paris had taken place for the purpose of redesigning the urban space . Belowground, however, they had to start by building a network of connections that Haussmann had already begun to establish aboveground in a different way. Everything old, dark, or obstructed had to be eliminated, both belowground and above. Haussmann’s underlying concept was the idea of parallelism between the two worlds, one visible, the other invisible, following the principle of circulation. Each of those two worlds had to be conceived of as a body.
Belowground, in the sewers as portrayed by Nadar, a world of technology is being opened up. In the middle are the convergence lines of the galleries and the technical constructions that had been devised specifically for the sewers. Metal chains hang from the ceiling, galleries divide, opening sweeping views of platforms, as though the sewers were a sort of underground railroad, which they in fact were, in part. Water flows along well-ordered itineraries between passages equipped with metal railings. Pipes disappear into walls, almost like the avant-gardes’ technical images more than six decades later. We are being shown the emblems of progress. The new reality is technical, and that reality appears more clearly underground than in Haussmann’s aboveground transformations. Here we can see a new world, a technological world, and we can see it thanks to the possibilities offered by electric lighting. Underground, we get a glimpse of the future.