GOING SOUTERRAIN | More Intelligent Life
SOME YEARS AGO, I sat on a stone-cut bench in a dark chamber in the catacombs of Paris wearing a headlamp and muddied boots, and listened to the strange story of Félix Nadar, the first man to photograph the underground of Paris. In 1861, Nadar invented a battery-operated flash lamp, one of the first artificial lights in the history of photography, and promptly brought his camera into Paris’s sewers and catacombs. Over three months, Nadar—41, moustachioed, with unruly red hair—shot in the darkness beneath the streets. He used 18-minute exposures and, as models, wooden mannequins dressed in the garb of city workers. On the surface, the images of dim, claustrophobic passageways created a stir. Parisians had heard of the vast subterranean networks underlying their streets and Nadar brought this dark lattice to light. The pictures opened up Paris’s relationship to its subterranean spaces—catacombs and crypts, sewers and canals, reservoirs and utility tunnels—a connection which, over the years, has grown deeper and more peculiar than in any other city.