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February 12, 2021

40 Haunting Vintage Photographs That Show Inside the Paris Catacombs in the 19th Century

“One of those places that everyone wants to see and no one wants to see again” is how Félix Nadar described the catacombs. Today the Paris Catacombs are illuminated by electric lights and friendly guides. But when 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.


The Paris catacombs were former underground quarries that were refitted to house skeletons. Nadar ventured into them to create an unprecedented series of photographs illuminated by flashlight. He used a magnesium lamp, visible in the lower right corner of the image.

Six or seven million skeletons were interred in the catacombs. Only sixteen carefully stacked protruding skulls on the wall are clearly distinguishable at left, yet they are all that is needed to indicate what the blackened squares in the distance represent.

Around the time that Nadar made this series of a hundred photographs in the catacombs, two of his beloved friends passed away. The photographer may have been exploring his own mortality when he embarked upon this series, but it was also a fashionable pursuit to descend into these macabre depths. In mid-19th century Paris, there were four annual visiting days for the catacombs, at which time they were filled with curious onlookers.

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 19th 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 Spac, 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.”












































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