Production, circulation, use and sales of images created during and in the period following the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. (by L R)

In her article 'Creating Desastres: Andrieu's photographs of urban ruins in the Paris of 1871', writer Alisa Luxenberg analyzes a series of lesser know photographs by J. Andrieu entitled Desastres de la Guerre. There are 47 known images in this series that document the ruins of Paris between 1870-71, resulting from the Franco-Prussian war and the events surrounding the Paris Commune. In addition to her analysis and insight in terms of Andrieu’s images, Luxenberg’s article brings together and builds upon the research work of other scholars, presenting an interesting and detailed series of facts relating to the production, circulation, use and sales of image during this period. The following text is a summary of some of the more interesting findings contained in her article as they relate to these areas.

Shortly after the fall of the Commune in May of 1871, Parisians who had left the city during the conflicts began to return to what was left of their homes or dwellings—for the city was in ruin. At this time, guidebooks were being produced “describing the ‘new’ postwar Paris” (3). Tourists also began to flock to the city to witness and experience the ruins for themselves. Photographs produced during this time served “as both historian and souvenir, fact and memory” (3).

The following are two remarkable quotes from the period. The first from a guidebook and the second from political figure Sir William Erskine:

A marvel awaits us [in the rue de Rivoli] …The Ministry of Finances, which was never more than a mediocre monument, has become a superb ruin. Fire is a worker of genius. From this uniform, geometric, insolently regular mass, it has made a dynamic, decorative, interesting edifice [Ludovic Hans and J.J. Blanc] (8).

And in his description of L'Hotel de Ville:

lovingly caressed by a splendid setting: never have I imagined anything more beautiful: it’s superb. The men of the Commune are frightful knaves, I don’t disagree, but what artists! And they weren’t conscious of their work, they didn’t even know what they were doing! That’s even more admirable (8).

Two surprising quotes made shortly after the destruction of a city during two conflicts and considering that at least 20,000 men and women were killed by the government during or just following the Paris Commune.

In fact, the production of images of the Franco-Prussian war, the Communards and Paris in ruins became a lucrative business and often quite competitive. Not only were the images reproduced in guidebooks, they were being sold to Parisians and tourists alike. Often photographs or engravings made from photographs were prominently displayed in shops throughout the city.

Eventually the government became interested in controlling the content and the circulation of these images. Both local and national authorities took advantage of a law dating back to 1852 requiring that all commercial images be submitted to the Depot Legal for authorization prior to their sale. On December 28, 1871 an additional decree was enacted that prohibited the sale of images “that disturbed the public peace” (4). It was believed that this censorship was an effort to prosecute Communards and their accomplices.

In terms of the representation of Communards, the majority was negative and anti-Commune. Some of this was done in order that the images pass through the Depot Legal so that they could be sold commercially. This was particularly the case in terms of text that accompanied the images. It was of course anti-Commune and directly influenced the interpretation of the image. It is also believed that in a political climate that was still prosecuting Commune sympathizers, it was unlikely that a photographer would willingly submit a pro-Commune image.

An interesting fact is that while images of dead soldiers from the American Civil War were in circulation, there were in fact few French photographers who produced or sold images of dead soldiers from either the war or the Commune. They used the ruins of building to depict the devastation of war.

While some journalists frowned on the creation of these images finding that they exploited a national tragedy, others viewed them as an important visual archive. At times they valued as artistic works. In the year following the Commune work by French photographers was exhibited in Versailles, London, Paris, and Liverpool. However, there is no escaping the evidence of commercial profit associated with these images. Luxenberg provides the following statistics on foreign markets alone:

In July of 1871 an English merchant purchased 50,000 images of the toppled Column in the Place Vendôme for resale in London. In and article that appeared in the Le Monde Illustre from 1871 Veron, a journalist stated that the world was actually “fighting over views of our disasters…[the numbers of images] 10,000 for Madrid, 20,000 for Berlin, 100,000 for London, and 200,000 for New York.