Portraits of the Dead: Photographing The Catacombs of Paris / by Neal Auch

 

During a recent trip to Europe I had the great pleasure of visiting and photographing the catacombs, Paris' infamous underground ossuary.  You can have a look at my favourite images from the trip in the slideshow above; there are many more in my new gallery Empire of Death.

 If you're unfamiliar with the catacombs, then perhaps a little history is in order:  The catacombs began as a network of old caves, quarries, and tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles far beneath the bustling streets of Paris.  In 1786 they were blessed and consecrated by the church, and used to house corpses from the overpopulated and overflowing Parisian cemetery Les Innocents, many of which had been improperly buried in open graves leading to concerns over the strong odour of rotting flesh and the spread of disease.  In 1810 the catacombs were renovated to the form they take today: monumental tablets and archways were added, and the skulls and femurs of the dead where stacked along the walls into various decorative patterns.

This new project is a departure from my previous work along several directions.  Firstly the obvious: this is my first time featuring work on my website that isn't about the ethics of eating animals.  This is perhaps an overdue addition.  It had never been my intention to make the page entirely devoted to meat photography and, indeed, I have a couple more non-meat projects in the pipeline, but these are logistically complicated and are taking somewhat longer to complete than I had expected.  

Initially I had planned on making my new gallery Empire of Death rather more succinct than it ended up.  My plan was to display only 10-15 of my favourite shots from the trip; generally I tend to prefer a "less is more" approach to displaying my work, trying to emphasize only the best shots and avoid too much repetition.  But the more I worked on the images, the more I came to realize that this gallery is conceptually distinct from my studio work and calls for a different approach.  The repetition of similar imagery in this gallery serves to convey the enormous scale of the catacombs, something I had not really been prepared for when I visited.  But, more to the point, it was only during the editing process that I came to really see these shots for what they really are: portraiture of the dead.  Every femur and every skull is different; one would no more argue that the repetition of these images is monotonous than one would argue that a series of head-shots of different models becomes monotonous.

From a technical perspective this gallery is also a bit of a departure for me.  This is my first time featuring work on my website that is shot in available light, as opposed my studio work where I always to have complete control over the lighting.  Photographing the catacombs of Paris is a technical challenge for several reasons, but the most salient point here is the fact that the catacombs are a very low light environment.  I found myself shooting almost exclusively with the aperture wide open.  This is a technical choice that I almost never make in my studio work; for aesthetic reasons I tend not to love the shallow depth of field effect that so many other photographers are enamoured with.  Initially I had mixed feelings about this choice; however, while editing these shots I came to find that the softness of the backgrounds/foregrounds adds a sense of mystery to the images that grew on me.

In future blog posts I intend to discuss this project in a bit more detail.  In particular, I'm planning to write in more depth about the technical aspects of shooting in the catacombs and also I'd like to write a short post about my thoughts on colour vs monochrome for imagery like this.  In the meantime, please enjoy the new gallery!