Paris Catacombs by Steven Hyatt

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 3
Today's post on the Paris Catacombs is by Steven Hyatt:

As early as the late 12th century Paris had a problem: their dead were rising from the ground. This was no zombie apocalypse though as the dead remained just that, dead and unanimated. By the late 1700s there had been so many people buried in the city of Paris that there was no remaining space to bury anyone else and the city's cemeteries were condemned.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 1
In the Parisian suburbs (at that time) there existed a series of underground tunnels where limestone was mined to build the city (today this lies beneath the 14th arr.). Louis XVI made the decision to exhume the bones of many who were buried in the city and move them into a portion of these old quarries. Over the span of some years cemeteries would be dug up and the remains moved under the cover of night into the tunnels. Thus began the Paris catacombs.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 2
At that time the catacombs essentially amounted to piles of bones scattered throughout underground tunnels. In the early 1800s Louis Etienne Hericart de Thury was given the task of transforming the catacombs into a place people could visit. Under his lead the bones were organized and stacked into patterns of femurs and skulls lining the walls, providing pathways where people could pass through and view the remains of the millions of people whose former bodies inhabited the tunnels.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 4
Fast forward a couple hundred years and I'm on a patriotically painted Airbus A330 having departed Charlotte, NC heading directly to Paris, and from there to Barcelona. It's my first visit to both cities, and it's the churches that set me in motion. I have a project photographing churches that began 4 years ago in Charleston, SC called The Churches of America Project, at this point a misnomer thanks to Romania, France, and Spain. My plan is to head to Barcelona from Paris, photograph Sagrada Familia there, and then head back to Paris where I will photograph 3 other churches, Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Sulpice, and St. Germain.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 5
I've brought my Nikon D600 and D800 as well as my 24-70mm f/2.8, 14-24mm f/2.8, and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM lenses, all packed in an impressively small space so as to have them on the plane with me just up in the overhead compartment.

My girlfriend sleeps in the seat beside me (I just can't seem to sleep on airplanes) while I'm running through the list of places I want to visit in Paris. There at the bottom of my list, in a spot that misrepresents my eagerness, sits the catacombs.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 6
As we descend from 38,000 feet Paris greets us with a misting of rain and a silvery-gray smearing of clouds across the sky. A cab ride later and we find our apartment in the city, drop off our luggage, and head straight for the nearest cafe.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 7
The days pass and the list grows smaller with the catacombs still sitting patiently at the bottom. A cloudy Saturday finds us emerging from the metro into sudden sun directly across the street from the catacombs…and the line to enter it is an Ouroboros encircling the block, it's end meeting it's beginning. My impatience leads us to wander the streets whether than wait in the line, deciding that we can try again another day, or perhaps even "next time" we come to Paris.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 11
I photograph churches, visit museums, wander streets, and our list dwindles until only the catacombs remain and we find ourselves awakening to our final full day in Paris. It becomes immediately clear that the catacombs are not a "next time" option and today is the day. It's a Wednesday and the hope is that the number of tourists are much less than on a Saturday. I reach for my D600 and the 35mm f/1.4 lens, which has thus far sat unused in my bag, thinking it will be needed in the near darkness awaiting us underground. Because of an earlier verbal lashing in French regarding my tripod, of which I could only understand the emphatic "NO", I decided it was unlikely they'd let me use it in the catacombs so I leave it at home and we hop the metro to the 14th arr.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 12
The metro takes us to the same stop as before and we emerge into what otherwise looks like a normal neighborhood, and there's no line for the catacombs. 8 Euros and a bag inspection later ("Camera?", they ask) we begin the descent down the spiral staircase and through the tunnels, our way lit every now and then by dim lights mounted to the walls. A sign invites us to enter the ossuary, provided we don't touch or smoke.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 8

Suddenly we're met with seemingly endless rows of remains on each side of us, and it is just as dark as I was expecting. Shooting at f/1.4 and an ISO of 6400 my shutter speed is teetering around 1/15 sec. As anticipated they don't allow tripods, and as unanticipated they don't allow flash. They do, however, allow flashlights. I pull out my iPhone 5, turn on the flashlight, and hand it to my girlfriend. I alternate between having her hold the phone and me holding it in one hand with my camera in the other.

Steven Hyatt Paris Catacombs 10
I set my D600 to Auto ISO and put it in aperture priority, shooting wide open at f/1.4. With the iPhone's flashlight I'm able to shoot, at best, around ISO 1600 at 1/60 sec. as long as I stay close to my subject.

Other visitors wander around us, taking photos and inspecting the former faces of the dead. I'm struck by the interplay between my modern devices and the centuries old surroundings, between the living and the dead.

As the light leaves the LED of my iPhone 5, bounces off the bones left by those no longer needing them, the very bones inside my own body, and finds it's way to the sensor of my D600 I, for perhaps the first time, tangibly experience the convergence of the past present and future in a unified moment. Then becomes now, and now becomes the future of us all, enshrined in pixels, enshrined in the Paris catacombs, enshrined on the internet. Both here and there, now and then.

Photography is quite the philosopher.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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  • I love the writing and images.

    Did you have a good experience in Paris? I try to play the part of a happy, friendly, smiling foreigner, but my experience so far has not been that good.

    But shhh… Can using an iPhone as a light source remain our little secret?

    • I was in Paris last year for only 2-3 days and had a great experience. I wish I had more time – there is so much to see.

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thank you.

      Yes, we had a fantastic experience in Paris. Contrary to so many stories I’ve heard the French were very nice and inviting to us. We had conversations with so many people who wanted to talk about New York City. Every restaurant, bakery, cafe, etc. that we visited were very welcoming. Many of them actually wanted to speak English to us. There was one place we visited for breakfast every morning and by the time we left they’d actually bring out what we wanted to us without us even having to order.

      All in all great experience in Paris and I very much so look forward to returning.

    • guest

      Not trying to start a little pi**ing contest here. But the flashlight app of my Samsung Galaxy 3 is visibly brighter than either my wife’s iPhone 4s or my son’s iPhone 5c. If you don’t have an iPhone don’t worry; the world goes on just fine. 🙂

      • Actually, I’m trying to find the smoothest, most compact flashlight. I’ve even tried adding a diffuser to a Maglight.

        Anyone found something with a very smooth beam, but still fits in a pocket?

        • RxGus

          Many of the newer hiking/camping headlights have settings that include 4-6 LED bulbs and plenty of battery life. I would think they would do a very good job of illuminating a very wide area with smooth, usable light.

          • Thanks Gus. Recommend anything specifically?

        • itznfb

          I carry a Foursevens Preon P1 with Energizer Lithiums with me everywhere I go. A small fold of tissue paper in my wallet. I’ve got a powerful continuous light with diffuser at all times 🙂

  • Alaa

    Congratulations on fulfilling one of the goals of your trip, and I must say I enjoyed your pictures, research and thoughts on this topic.
    I visited Paris last month just before Christmas, and found it to be a photographers dream place. Truly a beautiful place, but I had only a few days, so I did. The usual places: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and some trips outside the city. I traveled light with a Leica M. Definitely the visit did wet my appetite for another, more prolonged visit, one that I’ll be better prepared with more bodies and lenses, like my D800E

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thank you for the compliments. Yes, Paris is, to me, quite magical.

      My church photography page can be viewed at Unfortunately I do not yet have my Paris and Barcelona photos up, though I have every intention of doing so very soon.

  • Nick

    Wow really love your second to last photo. They’re all quite nice, but that second to last is easily my fave-

    I’m spending 8 days in Paris in May and I am tremendously excited for it. Catacombs are indeed far down my list as well perhaps I should rethink it.

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thanks Nick. My girlfriend and I spent about 9 days in Paris. When we travel we are the type who like to be out “in it” non-stop, so we’d go out for breakfast first thing in the morning and not come back until the night. Even doing that we still had many things we didn’t have the opportunity to do. The Catacombs were one of the most unique things we did. Also, if you take the Metro from the Catacombs in the direction of the middle of the city (the “touristy” type things) you will make a stop at a station called Arts et Metiers which is covered in riveted copper. It’s beautiful.

      • jack

        I lived there something like one year and I can tell you I ‘d still have a lot to discover…. truly a fascinating place that is 🙂

      • Nick

        Hi Steven,

        Yeah I like to travel much the same way- We usually like to do a lot of running and then take one or two days to “settle in” and try to experience a place like a local.

        We are actually thinking about adding another couple of days to the the trip since there is so much to see and do there. We are traveling around Europe before Paris, but we are thinking of shaving a day or two off another place and adding it to Paris so we can see more of the city and possibly do side trips.

        I think the catacombs just moved up a few notches on the list!

  • Simon

    Thank you for an extremely well written article and the great pictures!
    My eyes were glued to the screen. 🙂

    I love guest posts like these because, while we’re all here for the gear, the gear is just a means to an end – at the end of the day it’s all about great pictures and stories! So it’s good to remind ourselves of that every now and then.

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thank you for giving my article your attention and for the thoughtful response.

  • John Chandler

    I visited the catcombs back in 2010. great shots. I can impart some tips that maybe of help.
    1. take with you a small like gorillapod, something that fits in your pocket. tripods are not allowed but what you can do is use a tiny tripod and lean against a wall to gain stability, thereby pushing the camera against the wall, this will be a huge advantage.
    2. if you can get ahead of the group, you can place tiny tripod on floor to shoot from low angle. again as long as its really small you’ll get away with it, and as long as you don’t interfere others who walk by, hence why leaning against a wall is best.
    3. being there early, being first in live, being there middle of the week gives you best odds. the more people waiting in line…i waited 2 hours…the quicker the tours go by which last about 45min, in reality you may have to visit the place again as the tour guides hate tourists and will rush you thru it. place yourself in their shoes, they do this all day everyday and quite frankly find most tourists take the whole thing offensively. I speak french and can understand what tour guides say and frankly i dont blame them, there were a lot of tourists who were flat out disrespectful.
    4 tip the tour guides, be super polite and respect the dead doing so means the tour guides will give you an extra few seconds to finish your shot. The catacombs are long and go deep underground, doing long exposure shots in dim light requires patience.
    5. it will get cold, bring a jacket, staying warm means you will shake or tremble less when you hand hold your camera. do take a fast lens, pref wide, although a 50mm is good for close up shots.
    6. are your claustrophobic? be prepared for very tight small tunnels, passages. my advice carry as little as possible. camera, light torch, mini tripod. having a friend to hold light torch would be best and he can be your look out, to warn ya when ppl are approaching.
    7 dont touch anything, your oil on your hands will leaves traces on the bones and such. touching walls to lean on is ok but in general avoid touching things.
    8. you wont get much time to switch glass in the dark with ppl trying to get past ya in the tunnels, your better off having two cameras, one wide angle and one 50mm for close ups. using an led head lamp to light subjest would work well if no friend with ya.
    9 shoot monochrome, at high iso the colors and noise work against ya but black n white imo is ideal especially considering the subject with is macabre.

    hope this helps.

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thanks for the input John.

      I went on a Wednesday morning and walked right in with no wait. I was able to spend between an hour to an hour and a half taking my time without anyone pushing me to move on. In fact, they were quite nice down there with the exception of when one guy pickup up a bone and hit his friend with it. The lady was immediately on him, and he stood there as though he didn’t understand her. “What, you suddenly don’t speak English like the rest of your friends”? He moved along quickly.

      • Neopulse

        The guy who picked up the bone I’m surprised he didn’t get into deep, legal shit. That’s just plain wrong what he did.

  • Al Koenig

    Anyone visiting the Le Catacomb should also know that it is quite damp and water is dripping from the ceiling in some areas, as mentioned it is rather dark, so don’t be shocked when you feel the moisture!

  • Neopulse

    Clever that you were able to use the LED flashlight on your cellphone to help get these shots. If I do go I’ll see if I can sneak in a monopod and say it’s a walking stick heh. Also btw great post. Hope to see more of your work later on here.

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thank you for the compliments.

  • preston

    Thanks Steven – great photos and writing! This is the type of situation where the VR on the 16-35 f/4 actually comes in handy. With the 3 stops of stability added it is like being able to use shutter speeds as if shot at f/1.4 without VR (this doesn’t account for the crazy fact that the Sigma 35mm is sharper at 1.4 than this Nikon is at f/4!).

    • Steven Hyatt

      Thanks Preston. Yes, that Sigma has really impressed me.

  • Raymond Leung

    Bring a sweater or jacket. It gets really cold down there. Also, they stop letting people in about an hour before they close. Be prepared to wait in line. It took me two hours to get in.

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