Photography as propaganda to conceal the horror that was his new Paris

First demonstrated publicly in 1839, photography was a revolutionary scientific marvel. Its real-ness, as well as its accuracy and authenticity, shocked 19th century viewers. By the time it was 1850, such associations pushed photography to be an important tool for propaganda. Medical photography was also a political tool.

However, as photographer Charles Negre discovered when he visited the Asile Imperial de Vincennes, which was an institution for convalescent men founded by Louis-Napoleon, the bodies of patients were more difficult to make political than bridges. Disabled by amputation and suffering from typhoid, The patients of the asylum didn’t fit into the self-promotional machinations of Louis-Napoleon. In order to gain the approval of the government, Negre had to censor their ailments.

Highlighting progress

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

Louis-Napoleon took over a cramped, falling, and violent capital. The city’s population of one million was jolly in a sprawl of densely crowded buildings. Even a homeless slum was found within an area of the courtyard at the Louvre.

Modernizing Paris offered more than just practical advantages: “I want to be a second Augustus”, wrote Louis-Napoleon in 1842 “because Augustus … made Rome a city of marble”. It spelled the glory of. Therefore, he enlisted an incredibly efficient administrator known as Baron Haussmann to take the slums.

Delmaet and Durandelle. Construction Site in Parisin 1866]. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program. The Getty

The city became a construction site. Photographs by Charles Marville capture the filth of the slums, the chaos in their transformation, and finally, the dazzling spectacle of their revival. A large number of soldiers were recruited into a massive army of construction, fighting for their lives on this newly created ” field of honour” to ensure the honour of the nation as well as its ever-more power-hungry leader.

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

Then, in December of 1851 Louis-Napoleon was able to overthrow his country’s Second Republic and became the Emperor Napoleon III. It was the time of liberal democracy to be replaced with populist authoritarianism. In exchange, Napoleon III promised an abundance of progress and generosity, particularly for the working class. He stated: “those who work and those who suffer can count on me”. The credibility of his regime was contingent on his belief. Any evidence of opposition put him in danger, particularly from insurgent Parisian workers. In the words of one of the commentators said: “A week’s interruption of the building trade would terrify the Government”.

Napoleon III and his ministers requested photographers to help the king navigate this tightrope. Alongside Marville, the group also appointed Edouard Baldus to document the restoration of the Louvre, Auguste Hippolyte Collard to record Paris’s bridges that were built, and Delmaet, along with Durandelle, to show off the city’s opera house. The photographs provided tangible evidence of the progress made.

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 perspective of the newly constructed Point du Jour bridge is typical because of its focus on the scale of the structure and clear geometry of the subject. Others photographers admiringly compared the Napoleon III’s bridges with Roman Aqueducts, but Collard rather contrasts the structure with the people who are constructing the structure. Their small bodies ” trapped in the labyrinth of scaffolding” and are visually overshadowed by the bridge. Its is stamped in the imperial “N”, is a tangible reminder of the Emperor’s accomplishment. The political message in the photo is simple that the people should work and honor for Emperor Napoleon III, and modernity for France.

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