On Seeing and Believing: The Ruins of Paris, National Identity and Experiential Photography

This article examines an album of photographs of the ruins of Paris produced after the Commune, entitled Ruines de Paris: 1871. It argues that this album used the devastated landscape of Paris to repair the country’s fractured national identity in the wake of the conflict. Ruines de Paris inserted the destroyed city into the iconographical tradition of architectural photography as a form of monument preservation, thereby reclaiming the city for the French patrimony. This attempt to assert control over the city’s national meaning through photography, however, rested on a paradox. It required that viewers see not the Paris that actually was depicted in the photographs, but rather, the Paris that had been and could be. The ideological work of Ruines de Paris entailed a fundamental rupture in photography’s relationship with reality. In the service of national identity, the photographic ruins of Paris deploy photography not as a referential but as an experiential medium, turning representational photography into abstraction in the process.