Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, the use of data in public policy, and a special course in “The City in Film.”
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” dared to take his camera out of the studio in the mid-1800s and into the skies and sewers of the city.
By the mid-19th century, thanks to the widespread development of commercial photography, human beings gained the ability to be transported safely and instantaneously through both time and space. As the field expanded and cameras proliferated, photographers soon bored of the simple posed studio portrait and sought ways to connect viewers to remote and unusual people, places, and situations. The pioneering work of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known by his pseudonym, “Nadar”) demonstrates just how quickly and powerfully this new medium was adapted to showcase and interpret the hidden treasures of the urban environment.
By the 1850s the young Nadar had already established an impressive reputation as an illustrator and master caricaturist, drawing bitingly-satirical cartoons of the politicians and scandals of the day. (He proudly adopted his nom-de-plume from a contraction of the French tourne à dard, or “bitter sting,” after the effects of his drawings on those depicted.)
Nadar thought of photography as “an art that excites the most astute minds—and one that can be practiced by any imbecile.” But despite his initial skepticism, he soon came to embrace the new medium and established his own studio in Paris.
Easily mastering the subtle art of portraiture and hungry for new challenges, Nadar eagerly left the studio to realize the true potential of this amazing technology: he would use his photography to open windows of perception and transport audiences to places unseen. Using a hot air balloon—another technological marvel of the day—to bring his camera high above the rooftops of Paris, he is credited today with inventing the art of aerial photography.
Although hand-drawn “bird’s eye perspective” maps had existed since the 16th century, through Nadar’s lens for the first time ever Earth-bound city-dwellers could actually see what their neighborhoods looked like from the sky.
In addition to capital and chutzpah, these exploits required a good deal of technical creativity: prior to the advent of film in sealed canisters which could be shot at one time and processed later, Nadar actually needed to devise ways to develop his photographic plates in the air, without allowing exhaust gas from the balloon to damage them—and he needed to pull it all off in a moving basket buffeted by the winds. (Nadar’s ingenuity and derring-do inspired various characters and aeronautic plots in the works of his friend Jules Verne.)
Having thus conquered the skies, Nadar turned back towards Earth for his next project: a detailed series of photos exploring the subterranean infrastructure of 19th-century Paris. From 1861 to 1865, he and his camera ventured deep into the catacombs and sewers of the city, capturing remarkable images of winding underground tunnels, complex junctions, and vaulted burial chambers. As with his aerial work, underground photography presented unique challenges and required a number of technological innovations, including the use of new “Bunsen cell” batteries paired with artificial light sources. (Nadar also employed mannequins to pose as workers in the tunnels, presumably because they were better at standing still for the long exposure times he needed.)
In the years following Nadar’s work, urban photographers from Jacob Riis to Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) have followed in his footsteps, innovating along the lines he laid out using artificial lighting (flash powder and bulbs), smaller cameras, and faster film to pry deeper into the underbelly of the city. In the name of both progressive reform and exploitative voyeurism, they captured images of dark alleys at night, skid row flophouses, and slum tenement basements. More recently, the growing “underground movement” of urban explorers and subway spelunkers continues to seek out and photograph the forgotten and often forbidden subway lines, utility tunnels, and ventilation shafts of the modern metropolis.
Looking at the images, the ongoing fascination is obvious, even 150 years later. Through Nadar’s eyes we are able to probe deep under our city, confronting our collective unconscious in the hidden connections, forgotten places, and burial chambers we unearth.
This work suggests a sort of “archaeological excavation” of the city, or even an autopsy of the “urban body”—apt images for the practice of a seemingly upstanding citizen mucking through dusty crypts and poking his nose into the city’s sewers. Given the subject matter (death, decay, shit, and sewage), there’s a surprisingly macabre aspect to the effort: a corporal and carnal fascination bordering on “subterraporn.” However, such a reading runs the risk of obscuring the technological wonder that is present in the photographs.
To invoke the words of Walter Benjamin—who was fascinated with these images—Nadar’s underworld stands “on the threshold” of modernity. It’s mystical and secret, to be sure, and yet also efficient, even futuristic. To Nadar and his 19th-century contemporaries, these tunnels represented the high-tech infrastructure of a truly modern city, only recently installed at vast expense as part of Haussmann’s plans to transform the city using the principles of rational urban planning.
If one can filter out the romantic sepia glow and surrender to the magic of photography, it becomes possible to see the pictures as something more akin to public relations images, not unlike WPA-era propaganda depicting dams and public housing. Note the order to the stacks of bones, all neatly filed away by type and size. Look at how clean and well-kept these chambers are. Observe how even the sewer tunnels have handrails and directional signage. Nadar may have been pulling back the veil to reveal the subterranean psyche of the city, but it is hardly a dusty old disorganized dungeon of a place: it is a hidden thing of order and beauty.