Notre Dame portraits celebrate restoration with vintage photography

Barbara Merkley

We learned to restore the past at the same time and place that we learned, through the miracle of photography, to capture the present: in the second quarter of the 19th century, in France. Scroll to the bottom of this story and you’ll see one bit of evidence—the first photograph ever taken of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That daguerreotype, made in 1838 or 1839 by Louis Daguerre himself, shows a telling similarity to the church as it looks today, after the catastrophic 2019 fire: There’s no spire.

The spire that burned in 2019, along with Notre Dame’s entire roof and its oak-timber attic, did not yet exist in 1839. It was built during a two-decade long restoration of the cathedral that began in 1844. Led by the great architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, that first restoration became a pioneering embodiment of historic preservation—a discipline that was as new then as photography. Notre Dame, a masterpiece of medieval Gothic architecture, became Viollet-le-Duc’s masterpiece too.

Today the cathedral, including the spire, is being rebuilt again. In documenting that effort for the February cover story, Paris photographer Tomas van Houtryve was inspired by a portrait made of Viollet-le-Duc, late in his life, by the famous photographer Nadar. Photography had advanced beyond daguerrotypes by then; Nadar used the wet collodion technique, a process that captures images on glass plates.

“I wanted to photograph the present-day architect and team of workers using the exact same technique, linking all these guardians of the cathedral across time,” van Houtryve says.

His choice to work with the old technique honors not just the current restorers but the spirit of their project: Notre Dame is being rebuilt exactly as it was, as Viollet-le-Duc left it, using his own plans.

“We’re restoring the restorer,” says Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect responsible for Notre Dame today.

The restoration itself is just beginning. When van Houtryve captured the pictures seen here, the team had just completed the very intense phase of removing the debris left by the fire and buttressing the cathedral against further damage or collapse.

Past and present in one frame

In the rue de Vaugirard, just off the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, there is a small, elegant shop specializing in antique cameras. It was there that van Houtryve equipped himself to return to the 19th century. His wife Mathilde Damoisel, a documentary filmmaker and trained historian who frequently uses archival photos in her work, had gotten him interested in the history of his craft.

But when he first stepped into Antiq-Photo in February 2017, it didn’t look promising: He couldn’t see anything that a professional photographer, even one with retro sensibilities, might actually use.

“Much of what they had on the shelves was for collectors or for use as props in period films and TV shows,” van Houtryve recalls. “The displayed cameras were all too large or too collectable to drag out into the field. I told them I was looking for something portable and functional for collodion work. They said they would dig around in the back storage area and told me to return in a few hours.

“When I came back, they had unearthed a small, slightly beat-up, but perfectly working camera with a lens and three wooden plate holders. I bought the whole set for 300 euros. The camera seems to have been assembled with a lot of pieces that one might find lying around a cabinetmaker’s shop during the 19th century. The handle on top is clearly from a drawer.”

The shop clerks estimated the camera had been slapped together around 1870—a few years before Viollet-le-Duc sat for his portrait by Nadar. The great French photographer became van Houtryve’s biggest influence as he learned the intricacies of collodion photography.

It produces much sharper images than daguerrotypes. And whereas daguerrotypes, made on silver-coated copper plates, were one-off positives that were mirror images of reality—see Daguerre’s picture of Notre Dame—the glass plates used with the collodion process were negatives from which you could make any number of true-to-life prints.

The process had a major disadvantage, however: After the photographer covered the glass plate with syrupy collodion, then bathed it in a solution of light-sensitive silver nitrate—each plate had to be prepared by hand—the picture had to be taken and the plate developed within 10 minutes or so, while the collodion was still wet.

Nadar was unfazed by that limitation: He loaded his dark room equipment onto a hot air balloon to make the first aerial photographs of Paris. Van Houtryve didn’t go that far; he had drones to make his stunning aerial videos of the church, both inside and out. But he and two assistants did hump all his gear up the stairs of the bell towers to take portraits of the grotesques.

The portraits of humans working on Notre Dame were made in one of the containers behind the cathedral where the restoration team has its offices. Each subject had to hold perfectly still for eight seconds.

The atmosphere was particularly charged, van Houtryve says, when he photographed Jean-Louis Georgelin, the imperious and impatient five-star general who was summoned out of retirement by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the restoration of Notre Dame, and who is trying to keep his “task force” on track to complete the job by 2024. But the picture captures a side of Georgelin you might miss when you talk with him—a bit of the weight he must feel.

A landscape of ruins

When Viollet-le-Duc began restoring Notre Dame at age 30, he had already been working for four years on the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene at Vézelay in Burgundy. He ended up saving them both from dilapidation. Both are now World Heritage Sites.

But in both cases Viollet-le-Duc also took liberties with the design and structure of the building that his successors today would never dream of. At Notre Dame, for example, “he demolished the transept gables, he rebuilt the rose windows from a to z,” says his biographer Olivier Poisson. In his quest for an ideal Gothic cathedral, one that may never have existed before, he added not only the grotesques but also a spire that was taller and more ornate than the medieval original.

Modern restorers don’t condone such transgressions against historical authenticity, but they’re now part of the historical fabric of the church; the spire was a defining part of the Parisian landscape. Though Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect at Notre Dame today, reveres Viollet-le-Duc, he aims only to restore the great man’s work—not his practice of restoration.

“I’m not looking to have an ideal monument,” Villeneuve says. “I’m going to restore all the strata that have accumulated in the cathedral.”  

In doing so, he adds, he’ll try to save what he calls the “expression lines” on the face of the church—the visual evidence that it had lived and aged and endured in Paris for more than eight centuries before being visited by the worst calamity in its history.

Slowing time

Viollet-le-Duc’s world was one of accelerating change. In 1844, the year he received the commission for Notre Dame, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram, and during the two decades it took to restore the cathedral, telegraphy as well as photography spread rapidly. France was just then building a national network of railway lines. Baron Haussman was tearing down wide swaths of medieval Paris, including right in front of Notre Dame, to build the boulevards that exist today.

It must have made the preservation of one iconic monument from the Middle Ages seem especially important. And as the shocked reaction in France and around the world to the 2019 fire demonstrated, it is even more important now. At a time when the ground beneath our feet is lurching in so many ways, people crave a few fixed points—places that stay the same, places we can all agree are worth preserving.

The thing that van Houtryve likes most about the collodion process is what distinguishes it from the rest of his professional life, which has included stints as a war correspondent and news photographer for the AP.

“The whole process forces one to slow down and really observe the scene before taking a picture,” he says. “In our age of disposable snapshots from phones, it is a really good exercise for a photographer to slow down.”

As he mastered the artisanal technique, he became able to make images that looked flawless, like Nadar’s portrait of Viollet-le-Duc. But in the process, he says, “they lost some of their charm. The ripples, dust, fogging, and scratches are part of what makes old photography so interesting.

“So I decided to reverse course and loosen up. Rather than striving for the very cleanest image, I give the variables a wider margin to create blemishes and accidents during the process. The blemishes also accentuate our links to the past”—a bit like the “expression lines” on an old cathedral.

Paris-based photographer Tomas van Houtryve used his 19th-century camera to explore the hidden history of the American West in his book Lines and Lineage

Environment editor Robert Kunzig lived in France for 12 years.                    

The French government has created a special public entity to restore Notre Dame Cathedral. Follow their work on Instagram @rebatirnotredamedeparis

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