Photographic Imaginary and the Engineering of Modern Paris


A review of Engineering, Photography, and the Construction of Modern Paris, 1857–1911, by Sean R. Weiss.

Sean R. Weiss’s Engineering, Photography, and the Construction of Modern Paris, 1857–1911 offers a compelling historical interpretation of photography’s shifting definition within the city’s transformations under Baron Haussmann and the form of dramatic urbanism that bears his name, Haussmannization. Appropriately for a period defined by urban transformation driven by a bureaucratic machine, Weiss examines photography as used by Paris’s elite corps of civil engineers: the group responsible for the construction and renovation of the city’s network of bridges and public works. Writing the histories of photography, architecture, technology, and the city itself, Weiss’s research sheds new light on modern Paris and its photographic imaginary. His attentions turn away from the face of the city’s new boulevards, monumental vistas, and apartments for the haute bourgeoisie, which have been the main focus of previous scholarship in the history of photography. Instead, his study traces through history the use and circulation of photographs orchestrated by overlooked bureaucratic institutions responsible for modernizing the city’s circulation of people, goods, and water—the Service des Ponts et Chaussées and the Service des Eaux et Egouts—under the municipal governance of public works. In its historical scope, the study begins in 1857, the year Hippolyte-Auguste Collard was hired to photograph the bridges at the city’s center, after which Collard’s trade took a central place in the curriculum of the École des Ponts et Chaussées, and ends in 1911, the year that school dropped photography courses in the wake of photography’s cultural saturation in the first decades of the twentieth century. The author argues that a close historical reading of the patronage, production, reception, and circulation of photographs reveals a concerted effort on the part of civil institutions and their actors to render the city’s actual transformations into circulating fragments that generated and sustained the virtual impression of Paris as the modern metropolis. According to Weiss, photography was no mere adjunct tool for the engineer but a multipurpose, multivalent generative force of meaning, whose products migrated between the archive, the exhibition, and the public press, thus fueling a narrative of industrial progress and securing a definition of photography as an instrument of objectivity and its attendant protocols. Weiss examines a historical sequence of five deftly interwoven episodes in the history of the city’s application of photography in documenting engineering and public works, beginning with the Second Empire’s renovations to Paris bridges, and analyzes the increasingly important role of photography in the training of engineers responsible for the building and material upkeep of public works. The study spans the age of great exhibitions and ends with photography’s fracturing into a heterogeneous spate of technologies at the turn of the last century. Approaching photography as a constellation of social and intermedial applications, Weiss charts the dissolution of photography as a form of special knowledge in engineering, a paradigm that loses out to the proliferation of halftone reproductions in the columns of mass-media papers and handheld cameras in the hands of consumers.

In the dissertation’s first chapter, “Spanning the Seine, Framing Paris,” Weiss concentrates on the initial photographic commissions by the Service des Ponts et Chaussées, resulting in luxe photographic albums illustrated with tipped-in glossy albumen prints. These photographs not only documented the city’s transformations but more specifically glorified imperial patronage of bridges of both historical and modern origin. At the time, the Seine was also undergoing a shift in meaning, transitioning from a natural artery to a fully modern, commercial thoroughfare for goods coming into the city. Weiss lays out the social, material, and formal connections between these historical changes and photography’s increasingly institutional identity, especially within the bureaucracy of the Service des Ponts et Chaussées. Examining images of bridge construction by the commercial photographer Collard, among others, Weiss reads the narrative and ideological potential of these photographs, as well as their role as part of the modern urban experience. Unlike other commissions to photograph the city by Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville, each of whom in their own way supplied mnemonic emblems of a disappearing city in the wake of modernization, Collard’s photographs escape “these institutional and pictorial regimes of historic memory” and instead project the “newness” of the city by documenting localized construction (p. 47). Adding to our understanding of Collard’s photography in the scholarship of photo-historian Anne McCauley, Weiss analyzes various dimensions of the modern reproduced in Collard’s photographs of bridge work, including a step-by-step narrative of material construction as well as a visual objectification of labor always in relation to managerial oversight. In addition, Weiss argues that the city’s bridges fostered a new conception of space and mobility supported by a network of potential photographic points de vue woven into the urban fabric. The latter makes for a fascinating addendum to scholarship on photography and modernity, expanding in particular on Shelley Rice’s critical reading of the social relations masked by photographs of Haussmann’s Paris during the Second Empire. With this maneuver, Weiss situates the fluid and generative meaning of the album photograph in the context of studies of urban modernity. To the author’s credit, Collard’s photographs seem to belong right alongside the commercial stereograph and the carte-de-visite portrait in the literature on Paris and nineteenth-century photography.   

In the first of a series of transitions from fieldwork to institutional discourse, the second chapter, “Engineering the Surface,” delves into the first decades of photographic training as part of the curriculum of the École des Ponts et Chaussées. In 1858, Louis-Rémy Robert, former head glass painter of the Sèvres porcelain factory and an accomplished still-life photographer, introduced and led photography courses at the school. Robert communicated a practice of photography as not a medium but a “technique of engineering design” (p. 102) that shared the serialization and geometricized perspective favored by architects and engineers in their own practice of technical drawing. Whereas this technical approach matched the needs of the model rationalized bureaucracy that the city aspired to embody, it was the engineers’ ideology of progress that increasingly relied on the photograph to construct a virtual picture of modern Paris. Switching his attentions from literature to political and economic criticism of the era, Weiss invokes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s term richesse—as the synthesis between a higher quality product and a lower cost of production—in his understanding of how “the engineer’s technical achievement was made to appear sumptuous” (pp. 108–9). As he notes later in the dissertation, the work of ideology was particularly suited to graft meaning onto the slice of time and space that the photograph realized for the nineteenth-century spectator, as both a visual and virtual experience. As Weiss compellingly argues over the course of the next few chapters, it is the space of the Universal Exhibition that exploited both experiences of spectatorship and became the proving ground for modern commodity culture.

The third chapter, “Groundwork,” commences with a remarkable photograph of artificially lit sewers by an icon of Paris photography, Nadar. The photograph highlights those engineering feats that were invisible to the public but were made visible and meaningful by the optics and reproducibility of photography. The extensive glorification of the city’s modernization also applied to the very sewers below the streets, a process undertaken by the individual behind their construction, Eugène Belgrand, chief engineer of the Service des Eaux et Egouts from 1854 until 1878. Analyzing photography’s role in that city agency beyond Nadar’s photographic curiosity from 1863, Weiss examines the production and exhibition of Collard’s photographs of a train of aqueducts and underground pipes that brought natural spring water from the Dhuis river into the city of Paris, a feat which effectively abandoned the Seine as the city’s traditional source for public and private consumption of water. In a compelling series of arguments, Weiss interprets how Collard did not so much document but dramatize the project for its modern interventions into the French landscape. Through sequence and framing, Collard celebrates the city’s ambitions at the end of the Second Empire, all the while couching his views in the aesthetic mode of the picturesque. This hybrid approach is evident in Collard’s views of the aqueduct’s masonry cutting through the landscape as modern iterations of Imperial Roman works, like so many little Ponts du Gard culling water for the modern metropolis. In spite of its imperial iconography, Collard’s photographs in other contexts were reinvested with meaning more fitting to the Third Republic’s adoption of science, technology, and its discourse of objectivity, as the “official language of liberal Republican politics” (p. 152). This is especially evident in Belgrand’s redeployment of Collard’s photographs in the context of the Universal Exhibitions of Vienna in 1873 and Paris in 1879, and in Belgrand’s five-volume memoirs and history Travaux souterrains de Paris, published over the years 1875–82. In the photographic series of the cultivated landscape leading westward on the springwater’s path, Weiss interprets Belgrand’s efforts to “colonize the countryside” as part of the city’s tentacular reach; the ideological work of these images was to construct an “urban imaginary of the landscapes in the form of a representation” (p. 130). Citing the work of Nicolas Green and Steven Lubar among others, Weiss reads spatial and social relations embedded within these seemingly transparent forms of record. Alongside penetrating visual analyses of Collard’s photographs, Weiss produces a brilliant social historical analysis of the engineer’s ego-fueled memoirs, full of cynical rejoinders to published criticisms of official projects under his direction.

Returning to photographic instruction at the École, the dissertation’s fourth chapter “Institutions of Representation” examines theories of photography as an objective form of knowledge that complemented the medium’s role at the Universal Exhibitions in the 1870s and 1880s. Throughout the chapter, Weiss draws important critical attention to the writing of an understudied figure of nineteenth-century photography, Alphonse Davanne. Taking over the École’s photographic instruction after Robert, Davanne remained there from 1872 until 1886 and wrote extensively on photography’s scientific applications. Whereas Robert brought pictorial and design elements into the realm of engineering practice at the École, Davanne wrested photography’s definition from the manual and mechanical arts to champion its definition as a series of autonomous and automated processes—gathered under the sign of technology—which provided an objective visual form of knowledge and also functioned as “an indispensable auxiliary” to the professional scientist (cited on p. 190). Davanne happened to have great influence not only on the city’s architects and engineers but also on the photographic community at large, in his service as president of the Société Française de Photographie during the first decade of the Third Republic. It is this “photographic turn” adopted by institutions of science and technology that would then become the basis for and help visualize “the Third Republic’s broader adoption of a myth of scientism as a political strategy of republican universalism” (p. 197).

In the final chapter, “The Mediated City,” Weiss examines several episodes in the history of the Ponts et Chaussées in fin-de-siècle and early-twentieth-century Paris that reveal the threat of photography’s diversification into various hybrid technologies and its popularization as a mediated experience to the engineer’s “pure” photographic ideology, a historical dialectic taken up by Bruno Latour, whom Weiss brings into the orbit of the history of nineteenth-century photography in interesting ways. In part adopting a Latourian approach to the chapter’s five case studies, Weiss provides a round picture of the increasingly mediated and networked city that offered challenges to the engineer’s elite professional and social remove. [A highlight is a gem Weiss plucks from the Archives Nationales labeled the “Dravert Affair,” which follows bridge engineers responsible for the maintenance of the Pont National and their handling of a complaint by an aggrieved pedestrian injured on the bridge, and traces how  photography’s evidentiary role pitted these out-of-touch bureaucrats against the individual urban resident (pp. 230–40).] Through the chapter’s succession of seemingly disparate stories from the archive, Weiss constructs a fully realized account of photography’s decline as a professional technical practice.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the elite governing body of the Ponts et Chaussées came under more scrutiny by the press as well as members of the public, a triangulation that was more and more mediated by another modern kind of photography, that of public media and mass-culture. With the end of photography courses at the École des Ponts et Chaussées in 1911, Weiss includes an allegorical take on a grisly bus accident on the Pont de l’Archevêche that same year, an accident that attracted engineers inspecting the site for damage and, by their side, press photographers capturing the tragic events for public consumption. “Nevertheless,” Weiss adds in a conclusion that also situates his study as a challenge to the historiography of Modernist architecture and design, Paris’s engineers “ultimately made photography a generative medium for the construction of the metropolis that tethered the public to the very conception of the modern city” (p. 251). Weiss’s Engineering, Photography, and the Construction of Modern Paris is a theoretically rich, meticulously researched, and expertly crafted dissertation on the social history of photography, one that also provides an essential contribution to the history of science and technology and the study of media and metropolitan life.

Jacob W. Lewis, PhD
Adjunct Instructor, History of Art & Design
Pratt Institute

Primary Sources
Archives de Paris
Archives Nationales, Paris, France
École National des Ponts et Chaussées, Marne-la-Valée, France

Dissertation Information
The City University of New York, 2013. 316 pp. Primary Advisor: Kevin D. Murphy.

Image: Carte postale ancienne éditée par ND Phot, N°2174 PARIS SOUTERRAIN – Les égouts, service de l’assainissement – Collecteur du Boulevard Sébastopol. From Wikipedia.

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