How Napoleon III uses photography to hide the horrors of his new Paris

In 1839, the first time photography was publicly displayed, it was considered a scientific marvel. Its realism, accuracy, and truthfulness amazed 19th-century viewers. These associations paved the way for it to become an essential tool in the 1850s. Even medical photography was political. The asylum patients were afflicted with typhoid and disabled by amputation. They did not easily fit into Louis-Napoleon’s self-aggrandizing campaign. Negre had no choice but to censor the patients’ afflictions in order to gain official approval.

Highlighting progress

Charles Marville, Haut de la rue Champlain (vue prise a droite), 1877-1878. Musee Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris

Louis-Napoleon was left a capital that was crowded, crumbling, and crime-ridden. One million people lived in Paris, crammed into a maze of tightly packed buildings. Even the courtyard of the Louvre had a slum.

Modernising Paris would bring more than just practical benefits. In 1842, Louis Napoleon wrote: “I wish to be the second Augustus because Augustus… made Rome into a marble city”. Glory was the goal. He hired Baron Haussmann to tear down the old slums.

Delmaet and Durandelle, [Construction Site at Paris], circa 1866. Open Content Program at the Getty. The Getty

The city was transformed into a construction site. Charles Marville’s photos capture the squalor and chaos of the slums as well as the rebirth of these areas. The nation’s leader and the thousands of men drafted to build the new “Field of Honour” fought for glory on the field.

Charles Marville, [Rue de Constantine],about 1865. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louis-Napoleon, in December 1851, overthrew and became Emperor Napoleon III. Liberal democracy was replaced with populist authoritarianism. Napoleon III compensated by promising a bounty for progress and benevolence – especially to the working class – saying: “those that work and suffer can count me on.” His legitimacy as a ruler depended on being believed. He was in danger if he could not be considered, especially by the Parisian workers who were rebellious. As a commentator put it, “A week of interruption in the building trade would terrorize the government.”

Napoleon III, his ministers, and the photographers they commissioned helped him navigate this tightrope. Marville was not the only photographer they hired. Edouard Baldus documented the renovations of the Louvre. Auguste Hippolyte Collard captured the new bridges in Paris. Delmaet & Durandelle showcased the new opera house. They provided tangible evidence of progress.

Auguste Hippolyte Collard, Chemin de fer de ceinture de Paris (rive gauche): Pont-viaduc sur la Seine au Point-du-Jour, 1863-1865. Bibliotheque nationale de France

Collard’s photograph of the rebuilt Point du Jour Bridge is typical in that it emphasizes the subject’s superhuman size and geometric purity. Some photographers compared Napoleon III’s bridges with Roman aqueducts. Collard contrasts it instead to the workers who are erecting the structure. The bridge is the dominant feature of the photograph. It’s stamping of the imperial “N” and its tiny body,” caught in the labyrinth,” make it a tangible reminder of Napoleon III’s achievements. The photo’s message is clear. It says: Work for the masses. Glory to Napoleon III. Modernity for France.

Hiding disability

As Napoleon III’s Interior Minister knew, the “rebuilding of Paris” also had its “glorious war-wounded “. Napoleon III ordered in 1855 the building of a convalescent hospital for the care of workers injured during construction.

Charles Negre photographed the asylum’s buildings, patients, and staff in 1858. Negre was aware that he would have to follow the party line to get paid. The bodies he saw were actually those who had been injured in Napoleon III’s war of self-aggrandizement, putting to rest his populist image. Negre had to find a way to honor Napoleon III’s compassion for the suffering of his people without revealing that he was responsible for it.

Charles Negre [The 15th August]. Imperial Asylum at Vincennes], 1858. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Negre opened his album with the scene of patients and staff paying tribute to their benefactor. Negre arranged the patients in two blocks of geometric shapes, which were angled so as to direct our attention away from the individual patients and towards Napoleon III’s marble statue, which was placed at the center.

Charles Negre, Asile Imperial de Vincennes: la lingerie, 1859. National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

The working men appear to be subsumed by a superhuman structure similar to Collard’s Bridge. The bridge represented progress. This unified mass expresses social cohesion and “National Gratitude” to the Emperor.

Negre also focused on the modern architecture of the asylum and its efficient staff. As if they were on vacation, Negre shows patients eating, reading, and playing. Negre only showed medical care once but ensured that the patient’s bandages were so tight they made him disappear. Napoleon III’s generosity was only visible if his patients’ disabilities and illnesses were invisible.

Hugh Welch Diamond was a Patient at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum from 1850 to 1958. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1850s, photography was used more to detect illness than to disguise it. Hugh Diamond, a doctor in England, photographed his “lunatics” because he believed that photography captured hidden diagnostic clues. He showed these images to patients during treatment because he thought that the portraits’ inherent honesty and novelty would make them recognize their illnesses.

Negre, under political pressure, broke away from the emerging medical consensus. His meager finances also made him desperate for a state subsidy. In trying to tell so much about Napoleon III in his photographs, he tells us so little about asylum patients. Even if they’re of hospitals or bridges, pictures are never neutral. They are the result of the photographer’s choices. Photographers can hide many truths by choosing to reveal one.

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