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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 5: Printemps/Eté 2005
Article ©2005, Sharon Larson

Sharon Larson, Brown University

Rethinking Historical Authenticity: Photography, Nadar and Haussmann's Paris

In his convolute on photography in the Arcades Project , Walter Benjamin underlines the mechanical nature of photography: “[w]hat makes the first photographs so incomparable is perhaps this: that they present the earliest image of the encounter of machine and man”. 1 The encounter of the photographer and the mechanical technique of picture-taking was significantly telling in the context of nineteenth century Paris. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, photography gained enormous popularity, particularly in the capital city. By the dawn of the Second Empire in 1852, the development of photography was historically parallel to the urban development that was sweeping over Paris. Hired by Napoleon III to implement his plans to urbanize Paris, Eugène Haussmann was responsible for the renovation and urbanization of the city's roadways and parks, monuments and residential buildings, as well as the sewer system. It is in this setting that photography emerged as a medium in which to capture and to document a single moment against an ever-changing setting. Photography thus became a developing spectacle, though certain critics, such as Baudelaire believed photography to be an offense to the artistic domain, claiming that the reproducibility and mechanical aspects of the photographic process rendered it artificial and unauthentic.

It is within this context that Benjamin wrote his essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Arguing that technical reproduction removes the art object from its “sphere of authenticity,” Benjamin claims that “[e]ven the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. 2 To reproduce an artistic image, in this case a photographic image, is to remove it from its historical authenticity, from its time and place. In doing so, Benjamin argues, the photograph loses its ties with its original ritualistic function. This being the case, the work of the photographer Charles Marville becomes highly ironic and problematic. Hired by Napoleon III to document older neighborhoods of Paris prior to Haussmann's influence, his photographs, which have been widely reproduced, were initially intended to literally capture a moment in time, to stabilize it against the ever-evolving city that was Paris. However, Benjamin argues that because “the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object”. 3 The mere reproduction of Marville's works therefore indirectly defeats its initial purpose, rendering their historical authenticity obsolete, according to Benjamin. With these artistic consequences in mind, how can we conceive of Félix Nadar's oeuvre, which consists of aerial photography of Paris taken from his helium balloon “le Géant,” underground photography of mannequins in both the sewers and the catacombs, and portrait photography of his own contemporaries? For as we shall later see, Nadar's career work represents the meeting point of the artistic and technological advancements allowing for aerial and underground work.

Before taking a closer look at Nadar's photographic method, it would be helpful to examine the ambivalent reception of photography in the nineteenth century artistic domain. In spite of the thrill that accompanied the novelty of the development of photography, many artists and critics were skeptical of the role that it was to play in the arts. Benjamin, whose writings on photography reflect such controversy, is conscious of the tensions that were present in these circles regarding photographic technique and reproduction. While the exhibition appeals to the masses, the act of reproduction renders the art object itself a miniaturized collective creation :

But one is brought up short by the way the understanding
of great works was transformed at about the same time
the techniques of reproduction were being developed.
Such works can no longer be regarded as the products of
individuals; they have become a collective creation, a corpus
so vast it can be assimilated only through miniaturization. 4

Benjamin claims that there exists a direct correlation between the technological advances of photography and the tendency to view art as a collective creation. In addition, Benjamin illustrates, through a citation of photographer Gisela Freund, to what extent the photographer has free reign to manipulate the positioning of his/her models, lighting, and backdrop:

Could not the photographer who was a master of all the
effects of lighting, who had at his disposal a large and
perfectly equipped studio with blinders and reflectors, who
was provided with backdrops of all kinds, with settings,
properties, costumes—could he not, given intelligent and
skillfully dressed models, compose tableaux de genre ,
historical scenes? 5

Indeed, many of Nadar's and Daguerre's contemporaries believed that the photographer was a master, a puppeteer whose “artistic” utensils were simply mechanical tools used to manipulate the image of the “real” through its so-called “representation”. In considering such an interpretation against the backdrop of Haussmann's Paris, we can see the encounter between the artiste démolisseur that many critics claimed the photographer to be, and the artiste démolisseur that Haussmann claimed himself to be. By approaching both Benjamin's and Nadar's work from such an historical perspective, we can better understand the artistic implications and consequences of the latter's photographic method. While Nadar's photographs have flourished by way of reproduction, it is his mechanical technique that is of most interest to us. In reconsidering Benjamin's theories on mechanical reproduction in the context of Nadar's mechanical method, which relied heavily on the artificial, as we shall see, we will be able to trace both the artistic and political influence that Haussmann's Paris exerted on the evolution of photography.

Paris Souterrain: Nadar , the Flâneur and the Underground Arcade

In 1900, Nadar published Le Paris souterrain: des os et des eaux , an essay taken from a larger memoir entitled Quand j'étais photographe , in which he reflects on his career as a photographer. The former piece is based on Nadar's work underground, where he descended in 1861 to photograph the Parisian catacombs and sewer system, both of which were under constant transformation: the catacombs continued to house newly transported cadavers, and the sewer system was being renovated as part of Haussmann's plan to urbanize the capital. Among Haussmann's major developmental projects, his transformation of the Parisian water system is noted to be one of his greatest achievements. At the conclusion of Haussmann's work, Paris's revamped water system resulted in consistent domestic availability, cleaner, hygienic streets and alleys, and an advanced sewer system that allowed for a safer, more sound method of waste removal. Before the Second Empire, the sewer system was limited to 100 total kilometers; Haussmann's team expanded it to 560 kilometers.

Because the transformation of the sewer system was known to be Haussmann's greatest triumph, Parisians flocked like tourists to the underground waterways to take boat rides and walking tours. The sewers thus became a sort of underground arcade, a bourgeois source of entertainment whose power of attraction lay in technological novelty. It is therefore no surprise that Nadar's technologically advanced and innovative artistic method attracted various spectators. Using electric lighting for the first time in underground photography, Nadar was conscious of the new role that artificial light played in replacing solar illumination: “nous allons tenter le premier essai souterrain de la photographie aux lumières artificielles qui nous ont déjà si bien suppléé la lumière solaire dans notre atelier de portraits”. 6In an attempt to transport his studio from the Boulevard des Capucines to underground Paris, Nadar insisted upon transporting the electric light as well. The lighting was not the only artificial element transported from his studio. His photographic technique relied heavily o n technological advancements in the chemical domains as well.

The backdrop of the Parisian catacombs and sewers was in itself artificial. Not only did Nadar introduce mechanical elements into these drastically manipulated domains, but he also relied heavily on the artificial manipulation of mannequins. Photographing the catacombs and sewers in their “organic” state was simply not sufficient; in an attempt to lend a sense of scale to the images, Nadar used various life-sized mannequins that he maneuvered to best represent a human figure against the backdrop of the catacombs and sewers:

J'avais jugé bon d'animer d'un personnage quelques-uns
de ces aspects, moins au point de vue pittoresque que pour
indiquer l'échelle de proportions, précaution trop souvent
négligée par les explorateurs et dont l'oubli parfois nous
déconcerte. Pour des dix-huit minutes de pose, il m'eût été
difficile d'obtenir d'un être humain l'immobilité absolue,
inorganique. Je tâchai de tourner la difficulté avec des
mannequins que j'habillai en manoeuvres et disposai au
moins mal dans la mise en scène ; ce détail ne compliqua
pas nos besognes. 7

Claiming that the duration of the pose was too excessive for human models, Nadar attains the inorganic by way of his mannequins. This juxtaposition of the organic and the inorganic is particularly striking in his images of the catacombs. Through his use of mannequins, Nadar explores multiple layers of artificial techniques by juxtaposing not only the living with the dead, but the mechanical (the mannequin) with the human (model). The photographer's aesthetic project consists not only of capturing shots of the bone layout of the catacombs, but also of photographing the human among the dead.

In the context of nineteenth century France and Benjamin's Arcades Project, Nadar's mannequin plays a similar role to that of the wax figure in the setting of the arcade. Identifying “[t]he waxwork figure as mannequin of history” 8, Benjamin examines the wax figure by considering its spatial signification in the arcade: “[t]he multiple deployment of figures in the wax museum opens a way to the colportage phenomenon of space and hence to the fundamental ambiguity of the arcades” 9. This conception of the wax figure and its surroundings can be applied to Nadar's use of mannequins. Both the wax figure and mannequin serve to represent human figures in the inorganic setting of the Parisian undergrounds or arcades. The mannequin reigns in the underground arcade, where flâneurs circulate and art reflects the transformation of the world above.

The elimination of any human presence in Nadar's underground work is a reflection of what Benjamin interprets to be the decline of the aura. In his essay “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin defines the aura as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be”. 10 In relating this to photography, Benjamin claims elsewhere that “photography is decisively implicated in the phenomenon of the ‘decline of the aura'”, 11 due to the inability to experience the reciprocity of the gaze of the subject. Benjamin further examines the notion of aura and the role of the gaze in photography:

Experience of the aura rests on the transposition of a
response common in human relationships to the relationship
between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person
we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in
turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to
invest it with the ability to look at us in return. 12

If the auratic experience depends on the reciprocity of the human gaze, Nadar's underground photography illustrates, par excellence, the decline of the aura; his mannequins provide the inhuman and unsettling element associated with the unreciprocated gaze.

If photography signifies the decline of the aura, what kind of representation, if any, does it serve? How are we to interpret historical photography's suggested inability to accurately and independently re-create, to re-present, a fixed moment in time? I would like to propose that in examining not only his mechanical method underground, but also its public influence, we are able to see how various elements of 19 th century Paris, such as the flâneur, the crowd and the arcade, are subtly present in both Nadar's photographic and written work. For it is only by considering Nadar's photographic method, as well as its ambivalent reception by his contemporaries that serve as a reflection of a greater historical moment, that illustrate the consequences of an ever-evolving social and artistic world that apparently exists both above and below ground.

Sharon Larson, M.A., has just completed her third year in the doctoral program in Brown University's Department of French Studies. She studies 19th century French literature, with a special interest in representations of sexuality. In addition, she is responsible for researching and cataloguing selected images for a digital project on Paris of the 19th century( http://dl.lib.brown.edu/paris ).


1 Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Y4a, 3.

2 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” P. 220.

3 Ibid ., p. 221.

4 Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” P. 523.

5 Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Y4, 4.

6 Nadar, Félix. Le Paris souterrain: des os et des eaux. P. 29.

7Ibid. , p. 59.

8 Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Q3,3.

9I bid., Q2,2.

10 Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” P. 519.

11 Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” P. 187.

12Ibid., p. 188.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin.
Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

--- “ Little History of Photography .” Walter Benjamin Selected Writings.
Vol. 2, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. P. 507-530.

--- “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations. Ed. Hanna Arendt. Trans.
Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

--- “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations . Ed.
Hanna Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Nadar, Félix. Le Paris Souterrain: des os et des eaux. Paris : Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites, 1982.