Review: Iconic Paris and the Lens of History

Catherine E. Clark, Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xii + 328 pp. $75.00 U.S. ISBN: 9780190681647.

By Sun-Young Park

Has ever a modern city been so iconic, so universally recognizable, as the Paris that boomed during the latter half of the nineteenth century? Paris embodied all that defined the modernity of its era, from technology and infrastructural advancement to new modes of leisure and consumption. The city served as a fertile muse to writers and artists alike, whose output both reflected and constructed the ideal of the Paris we continue to cherish to this day. Yet despite the plethora of images that have allowed its familiarity, it is a metropolis often reducible to a few well-worn symbols: the Eiffel Tower, proud remnant of the 1889 World’s Fair; the Notre Dame Cathedral, as reconstructed in the mid-nineteenth century by architect and preservationist Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc; the Arc de Triomphe, commanding a majestic vista down the Champs-Élysées. The photographic image (or “cliché,” in French) has become a visual cliché—that is, a trite, overused idea, as we generally employ the term today. In her stimulating book, Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970, Catherine E. Clark provides welcome insight into this paradox by exploring the city’s photographs as both conveyors of meaning and material across the century when this medium entered mass culture.

The book proceeds chronologically, charting key moments when urban photography assumed heightened roles and meanings. It begins with the institutionalization of the city’s photographic collection at the Musée Carnavalet and, eventually, in its affiliated research library, the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris—a project conceived during the Second Empire at the height of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s urban renovation works, but only realized in the 1880s. In examining the early acquisition and exhibition practices of the Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique, Clark excavates a few narratives that inform her analyses of later events. First, the visual preservation of the Parisian past was inextricably linked to the city’s modernization through demolition (14), a recurring theme throughout this urban and photographic history. Second, a debate raged among archivists, photographers, and cultural critics concerning photography’s perceived objective, scientific value versus doubts over its ability to capture subjective and emotional content. Finally, Clark notes the various cross-media exchanges that shaped photography from the beginning—it could borrow the styles and conventions of prints and paintings, and eventually inform them in turn.

The book’s middle chapters add political valence to these ideas by focusing on charged moments of war and celebration. For example, given the Nazis’ severe restrictions on photography during the Occupation (1940–44), publications that represented the city’s history, longevity, and continuity through images while eliding the temporary German occupiers functioned as subtle acts of resistance (96). Meanwhile, the flood of photographs capturing the Liberation of 1944 drew on visual tropes from the past to construct a narrative of heroic revolt and national unity, generally avoiding the messier details of collaboration and betrayal. Photographs could capture history in the making and exploit the medium’s supposed objectivity to craft a selective and emotionally charged interpretation of events, borrowing from potent and familiar historical images and paintings to achieve this end. The enduring presence of the past in depictions of the present remains at the center of Clark’s analysis of the 1951 Bimillénaire de Paris, a celebration of the city’s two thousandth birthday. In the face of France’s decline in the global arena, the organizers’ emphasis on its past grandeur resulted in the “reduction of history…to a set of visual clichés” (133), with hints of modernity thrown in, replicated by tourists with their Kodak cameras.

The book culminates in the amateur photography competition “C’était Paris en 1970” (This was Paris in 1970), which shifts the perspective closer to the typically nameless consumers of mass-producible images. Sifting through the substantial, uncatalogued depository of submissions, Clark draws several conclusions. At the most immediate level, these photographs documented the physical transformations enacted on the city at the mid-century. Once again, photographs contributed to a national project of preservation and memory in the face of rapid change. In the choice of subjects and framing—specifically their reliance on recognizable visual tropes—they further reveal how Parisians had imbibed specific ways of viewing and reading the city from the preceding decades of photographic proliferation. Finally, the submissions engender portraits of the photographers themselves: Clark perceives a diverse body of Parisians conveying social critiques, commentaries, and sentiments of alienation, outrage, and nostalgia through their lenses. Across these registers, the 1970 competition ultimately demonstrated the ability of photographs not merely to document but to shape and facilitate historical change with all of its emotional charge (216).

While the book’s focus on Paris—as the birthplace of photography and the paradigmatic “city as image”—hardly requires justification, it does invite reflection on possible comparative contexts, from London and Berlin to New York City. While Clark’s exploration of photography’s ability to convey historical depth and political potency is grounded in French history, the reader draws conclusions that are not nationally specific. The theoretical and conceptual implications of Paris and the Cliché of History promise to enrich the study of global urban photography, and the book invites the reader to engage more critically with those ubiquitous objects of modern life.


SunYoungParkSun-Young Park is a cultural and architectural historian at George Mason University who specializes in nineteenth-century France. Her research focuses on the ways in which architectural history, urban history, and the history of medicine intersect. Her first book, Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), examines how a wide-ranging hygienic discourse shaped various institutions and public spaces of the early nineteenth-century capital, from military training grounds and schools to commercial pleasure gardens and community swimming pools. Professor Park is currently working on a second book project, The Architecture of Disability in Modern France, which will analyze how architectural and urban developments in France accommodated (and at times failed to accommodate) blind, deaf, and physically disabled subjects between 1750 and the early twentieth century. At Mason, she teaches courses on 19th-century Europe, French cultural history, and modern architectural and urban history.


Featured Image (at top): Eduard Baldus, Paris. Arc de Triomphe, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.