Paris Catacombs by Steven Hyatt

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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