Goldsworthy on Clark, 'Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970'

Catherine E. Clark. Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 328 pp. $78.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-068164-7.

Reviewed by Patricia Goldsworthy (Western Oregon University)
Published on H-Urban (November, 2020)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version:

Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970 examines the history of photography history in Paris. While others have looked at the history of photography within the city, Catherine E. Clark is interested in the history of theorizing, archiving, displaying, and analyzing photographs—in other words, the history of how photography has functioned as historical evidence within the history of Paris. Rather than a history of the major photographers who have dominated the history of photography, Clark highlights those behind the scenes: the archivists, curators, and institutions (such as museums, archives, and publishing houses) who transformed how photographers, scholars, and the general public accessed and viewed photography. Clark traces the transformation from the mid-nineteenth-century status of photography as secondary to paintings, reconstructions, and historical artifacts to the late twentieth-century reliance on photography to construct and understand the history of the city. Drawing from a wide variety of writings from archivists, theorists, historians, and popular sources, as well as professional and amateur photographers, Clark deftly demonstrates that photography did not just provide a view of history but has also transformed our relationship to the past, the present, and our visions of the future.

Clark bookends her study with two eras of major urban destruction and development in modern Paris: Haussmannization in the 1860s and the urban renewal of the 1970s. Photography played a critical role in documenting each of these; however, the nature of the photograph in the archive and in historical imaginations transformed dramatically between the two. The physical demolition of the city by Georges-Eugène Haussmann was accompanied by the conservation of vieux Paris (Old Paris) through imagery, historical societies, and the formation of the Musée Carnavalet, a museum devoted to the history of Paris. As Paris was being torn apart, Parisian history and its destruction needed to be preserved. This is a theme that we see being carried out throughout the book; as major events in the history of Paris (such as Haussmannization, Nazi occupation and liberation, and urban development in the 1970s) occurred, amateur and professional photographers alike mobilized to document the city as it transformed.

City officials also became interested in how this preservation and destruction would be conveyed to scholars and the general public. As we see in the first chapter, in the nineteenth century photography played a secondary role in depictions of the past in museums and libraries. Rather than being placed on display alongside paintings and other historical artifacts, photographs were relegated to the back rooms—to be consulted in making museum exhibits but not on display themselves. Central to the discussions surrounding the utility of photography as a historical artifact were the debates about the scientific versus the romantic views of imagery and public-facing interpretations of history as photography was seen more as a “technical aid” that was “too far on the side of science to fit into the romantic and aesthetic displays of the museum” (p. 28). Accompanying this discussion was the concern that photography had become too closely associated with mass culture to be used in scholarly studies. Photographs were regularly used in the historical reconstructions placed on display in museums, but photographs themselves remained out of the sight of museum visitors until the early twentieth century. At this point, an important shift occurred in the meaning of “documentary.” Documentary images formed the basis of museum exhibits and collections, and this had referred to objects that were created using historical documents as a basis for understanding that which was being depicted. By the early twentieth century, museums came to rely more on direct eyewitness accounts of events, people, and places. Such a shift led to an increased reliance on photographs as historical sources, not just sources to consult when recreating history. Photography came to be seen as “an objective eyewitness to history” (p. 42). This changed collecting and display practices for museums, in particular at the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, where the director Marcel Poëte began collecting images of historical interest of Paris, including architectural details of older buildings, as well as images that documented the Parisian present. Photography, then, came to represent the historical past and present for future generations of Parisians.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, photographs began circulating more, largely among the Parisian public via the illustrated books on Parisian history that Clark refers to as “photohistories” in chapter 2. While many of these photohistories were nostalgic views of the past, they also shaped understandings of the present. The trauma of World War I drew from this nascent model of interpreting photography and transformed the interpretations of photography of the city. In the aftermath of war, the critic Louis Chéronnet referred to photography as “haunting” (p. 72). Clark draws from this to analyze how photography was used to access a lost past. Such nostalgia for the past ran rampant in the postwar era, and Clark demonstrates how it shaped a vision of the city and the collecting practices of individuals, publishers, and museums. Photographs were seen as “emotionally laden snapshots of a by-gone era in order to produce books about ‘Paris 1900’.... Photographs became frozen moments” (p. 53). This occurred at a time when photography practices were expanding; anyone could be a photographer or a photography collector. However, as the views of the city were expanding to incorporate images produced by a wider variety of the population, the official acquisition and publication of photographs was dwindling as publishers increasingly controlled visions of Paris. Photographs placed in circulation in illustrated books and the illustrated press were shaped by “networks of publishers, authors, photographers, archivists and collectors, picture editors, and designers,” but publishers increasingly relied on the same images from their in-house collections, thus establishing a “closed loop” of photographic illustrations and, by extension, Parisian history (pp. 51, 67). This became particularly significant for later historical interpretations as museums, such as the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, began adding illustrated books instead of individual photographs to their archival collections. In doing so, they ensured that future scholars would reinforce the essentialist visions of Paris and erased the sites, people, and histories that were not represented in their pages.

As we see in chapter 3, the trauma of war continued to shape interpretations of photographs, and their temporality, in the Second World War. Photography during the occupation of Paris, which lasted from 1940 to 1944, was policed and politicized. While Germans were allowed to publicly photograph, this right was restricted for amateur French inhabitants of the city. Here, Clark coins the term “repicturing,” which developed within the context of the occupation, to describe the practice of looking at a photograph and seeing historical representations of the past. Viewers began imposing historical meanings onto current photographs to avoid the trauma of the war and of occupation and to emphasize the fleeting nature of Nazi occupation. This practice was guided by photohistories published by Carnavalet curators who selected images of the city that reinforced themes of resistance: “This technique of seeing the city’s history in the picture of its present became a way to resist the totality of the Occupation—to see a richer history that the Germans could never access” (p. 96). In this chapter, Clark highlights the performative nature of photography, as well as the performative nature of history itself. Images of resistance fighters were carefully crafted and staged, and included barricades—which were also carefully crafted and staged. While barricades were not a significant means of defense as they could be easily surmounted and destroyed by German tanks, they were highly symbolic for the Parisian revolutionary past that they represented. Although photography was touted as an objective and impartial source, Parisians used photography as a means of rewriting the history of occupation. In the immediate aftermath of liberation, photography books of occupation selectively portrayed images that constructed their own narratives of resistance while Parisians embarked on the harsh policies of the epuration.

In the fourth chapter, Clark examines the transformations in the meaning and usage of photography in postwar Paris through the Bimillénaire de Paris in 1951. As a means of rebuilding Paris after the war, and reinterpreting its history, the Bimillénaire was created to bring people to the city and rebuild both the city and its image after the war. The Bimillénaire was shaped by “the specter of global decline and the push for modernization that defined the decade” (p. 126). These twin forces of nostalgia for the past and hopefulness for the future, which we see shaping interpretations of photography throughout the book, coalesce within this event. In this chapter, Clark lays out the importance of photographs for constructing a Parisian past, present, and future. Old photographs increasingly became seen as important historical documents to the broader public, and contemporary photographs became a means by which individuals could see and interpret the past. Photography thus became the “future of looking at the past” (p. 139). The future, present, and past worked together in several significant ways: for example, Irving Penn completed portraits of the workers of Paris who had long been recognized in Parisian photography as central to the daily life and functioning of the city. However, he decontextualized the workers from their work by eliminating the standard backdrop of the city in favor of a blank studio backdrop. In doing so, “Penn’s portraits depict the working classes as an integral part of the city’s identity at the same time that they foreshadow the disappearance of tradespeople from the streets in the decades to come” (pp. 148-49). While many of the photographs from 1951 evoke nostalgia through the “clichés” of the city reinforced in standardized photographs of Paris’s history, these photographs are also looking forward at the transformations of the city’s future, tying the past to the present as well as the future.

Clark’s interest in the temporalities contained within a photograph is perhaps most evident in her fascinating analysis of the 1970s photo contest sponsored by the Fédération Nationale d’Achats des Cadres (FNAC), “C’était Paris en 1970.” The past is evident in the competition’s title through the use of the imperfect tense. The competition divided Paris into grids, and each competitor was responsible for documenting their square. This chapter focuses on the views of amateur photographers from across the city, encompassing people of different gender, racial, national, and class backgrounds. As with Haussmannization, the backdrop of certain areas of Paris remained constant whereas other areas experienced dramatic urban upheaval. Unlike Haussmann’s project, however, these transformations were completed piecemeal, without an overarching plan of how these different projects fit together—what Louis Chevalier referred to as the “assassination of Paris” (p. 166). These amateur photographers were charged with making and capturing the history of Paris through their images. Many of the scenes they documented were in the past by the time they submitted their competition entries: the marketplaces at Les Halles were destroyed to create a shopping center in 1971, the construction of the boulevard périphérique from the late 1950s to the early 1970s created a ring around Paris and demonstrated the rising popularity of the car in the city, working-class neighborhoods were destroyed to be replaced by large-scale apartment buildings, such as the Habitations à loyer modéré (HLM), from the postwar era through the 1970s. As Clark argues, “yesterday’s photograph ... was already today’s historical document” (p. 167). While many photographs documented the upheaval and transformation of the city at this time, those selected as the competition winners produced generic and timeless depictions of the city, thus reinforcing the connections between photography, history, and nostalgia that Clark traces in her earlier chapters.

Clark’s thoughtful and thoroughly researched book will influence our thinking on the history of photography in Paris: how it was used, how it affected historical analysis, how it influenced conceptualizations not just of the past but also of the present and the future. Paris and the Cliché of History provides a history of the connections between photography and history and the ways certain stereotypes and exclusions from imagery are reproduced in histories of the city, and vice versa. In thinking through the inclusions and exclusions of this imagery, however, the book does not fully address the class, racial, and gendered nature of some of these stereotypes until the last chapter. While Clark emphasizes the barricades in photographs of the liberation of Paris, for example, in drawing on a history of Paris as the capital of revolution and resistance to tyranny, she could have also considered the way the exclusively white, largely male imagery that she includes in this chapter also reinforced certain values about who inhabited Paris, who protected the city, and who was responsible for its liberation when we know that the majority of the members of the Free French, who facilitated the liberation, were African.[1] The march of French troops into Paris was manipulated so that white soldiers led the way, and the imagery of liberation predominately featured white soldiers.[2] While she identifies Roger Schall and André Zuccaas creating selective and whitewashed images of the capital under occupation, the whitewashing of Parisian history through imagery extended far beyond their images. As Clark notes, the types of photographs taken and preserved in museums directly affected things like urban planning and historical interpretations; therefore, such whitewashing had implications beyond the era in which they were taken. Just as photographs “could mask events that they did not picture” in manipulating the roles of photographers, authors, and publishers who wished to hide their wartime activities, so too could these images portray a whiter version of key events in the city’s history (p. 117).

Overall, Paris and the Cliché of History is a valuable contribution to our understandings of the ways that historians have used photography and the ways photographers have used the idea of history. Clark’s highly engaging work will be valuable to scholars of history, art history, cultural studies, urban studies, and French studies, as well as anyone who is interested in how the romanticized clichés of Paris came into existence.


[1]. Eric Jennings, Free French Africa in World War II: The African Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[2]. See Cécile Bishop, “Photography, Race and Invisibility,” Photographies 11, nos. 2-3 (2018): 193-213.

Citation: Patricia Goldsworthy. Review of Clark, Catherine E., Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.