Notre Dame portraits celebrate restoration with vintage photography

Inspired by a portrait of the cathedral’s 19th-century architect, this photographer set out to connect the past with the present.

By Robert Kunzig
Published 15 Feb 2022, 12:08 GMT
Notre Dame’s decorative grotesques, or chimeras, perch on the bell towers and on the high gallery ...
Notre Dame’s decorative grotesques, or chimeras, perch on the bell towers and on the high gallery between them. They were added to the medieval cathedral when it was restored in the 19th century by the architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Van Houtryve took this and other pictures in this article using a 19th-century camera and glass plates.

We learned to restore the past at the same time and place that we learned, through the miracle of photography, to capture the present: in the second quarter of the 19th century, in France. Scroll to the bottom of this story and you’ll see one bit of evidence—the first photograph ever taken of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That daguerreotype, made in 1838 or 1839 by Louis Daguerre himself, shows a telling similarity to the church as it looks today, after the catastrophic 2019 fire: There’s no spire.

This portrait of Viollet-le-Duc was made in 1878, the year before his death, by the famous photographer Nadar, aka Gaspar-Félix Tournachon. Nadar used the process that van Houtyrve uses now: wet collodion on glass plates.
Photograph by Bridgeman Images
The spire that Viollet-le-Duc added to Notre Dame, replacing a medieval one that had been dismantled in the 1790s, is seen in a photograph made in the 1860s, not long after the spire was completed. It was destroyed in the 2019 fire.
Photograph by Hervé Lewandowski, Art Resource

The spire that burned in 2019, along with Notre Dame’s entire roof and its oak-timber attic, did not yet exist in 1839. It was built during a two-decade long restoration of the cathedral that began in 1844. Led by the great architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, that first restoration became a pioneering embodiment of historic preservation—a discipline that was as new then as photography. Notre Dame, a masterpiece of medieval Gothic architecture, became Viollet-le-Duc’s masterpiece too.

Today the cathedral, including the spire, is being rebuilt again. In documenting that effort for National Geographic's February cover story, Paris photographer Tomas van Houtryve was inspired by a portrait made of Viollet-le-Duc, late in his life, by the famous photographer Nadar. Photography had advanced beyond daguerrotypes by then; Nadar used the wet collodion technique, a process that captures images on glass plates.

This 1857 watercolor shows Viollet-le-Duc’s plan for the spire. The copper statues of the apostles he put in steps along its base survived the fire in 2019: By coincidence, they had been removed for restoration just four days earlier.
Photograph by Ministère de la Culture, Médiathèque du Patrimoine, RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource NY
Philippe Villeneuve is one of 35 “chief architects of historical monuments” working in France today—and the one directing the restoration of Notre Dame. His passion for the cathedral goes back to childhood. Not seen on this glass-plate portrait: the tattoo of the spire on his left forearm and the one of a rose window on his chest.

“I wanted to photograph the present-day architect and team of workers using the exact same technique, linking all these guardians of the cathedral across time,” van Houtryve says.

His choice to work with the old technique honours not just the current restorers but the spirit of their project: Notre Dame is being rebuilt exactly as it was, as Viollet-le-Duc left it, using his own plans.

This 1843 drawing by Viollet-le-Duc and his partner Jean-Baptiste Lassus illustrated their proposed restoration of Notre Dame. It shows a shorter, less ornate spire—more like the medieval original— than the one Viollet-le-Duc ultimately built. His ambition increased after Lassus died in 1857.
Photograph by Ministère de la Culture, Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/ Art Resource NY

“We’re restoring the restorer,” says Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect responsible for Notre Dame today.

A chimera on the north bell tower. Van Houtryve makes digital scans of his wet-collodion glass-plate photographs.
Amélie Strack, a sculpture specialist working for Socra, a restoration company, cleaned sculptures in two of Notre Dame’s side chapels, testing methods that will be used to clean the other 22. She’s excited about a new laser technique: “That’s something allowed by the big budget at Notre Dame.”
Medhi Porcq is a scaffolder working on the restoration. Massive scaffolding now flanks the cathedral on both sides and fills much of the interior.
There are a number of demons in the gallery of the chimeras at Notre Dame. This one is squashing a toad.

The restoration itself is just beginning. When van Houtryve captured the pictures seen here, the team had just completed the very intense phase of removing the debris left by the fire and buttressing the cathedral against further damage or collapse.

Past and present in one frame

In the rue de Vaugirard, just off the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, there is a small, elegant shop specialising in antique cameras. It was there that van Houtryve equipped himself to return to the 19th century. His wife Mathilde Damoisel, a documentary filmmaker and trained historian who frequently uses archival photos in her work, had gotten him interested in the history of his craft.

Viollet-le-Duc’s scaffolding was much more modest. In this picture from the 1860s, toward the end of the restoration, the last statues have yet to be replaced in the Gallery of the Kings, above the front portals. During the French Revolution all the kings had been removed and decapitated.
Photograph by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Resource, NY

But when he first stepped into Antiq-Photo in February 2017, it didn’t look promising: He couldn’t see anything that a professional photographer, even one with retro sensibilities, might actually use.

“Much of what they had on the shelves was for collectors or for use as props in period films and TV shows,” van Houtryve recalls. “The displayed cameras were all too large or too collectable to drag out into the field. I told them I was looking for something portable and functional for collodion work. They said they would dig around in the back storage area and told me to return in a few hours.

“When I came back, they had unearthed a small, slightly beat-up, but perfectly working camera with a lens and three wooden plate holders. I bought the whole set for 300 euros. The camera seems to have been assembled with a lot of pieces that one might find lying around a cabinetmaker's shop during the 19th century. The handle on top is clearly from a drawer.”

Dorothée Chaoui-Derieux, an archaeologist and culture ministry conservator, coordinated the removal of charred wood and stone from Notre Dame. Because the remains were considered historic artifacts, it was a painstaking, two-year process, but an intensely rewarding one: “We all had trouble telling ourselves it was time to turn the page and resume normal professional life.”
In this view of the south bell tower two chimeras sit on the balustrade above a gargoyle, which acts a rainspout.

The shop clerks estimated the camera had been slapped together around 1870—a few years before Viollet-le-Duc sat for his portrait by Nadar. The great French photographer became van Houtryve’s biggest influence as he learned the intricacies of collodion photography.

It produces much sharper images than daguerrotypes. And whereas daguerrotypes, made on silver-coated copper plates, were one-off positives that were mirror images of reality—see Daguerre’s picture of Notre Dame—the glass plates used with the collodion process were negatives from which you could make any number of true-to-life prints.

A view of the north bell tower, looking up.
Faycal Aït Saïd operates the 250-foot-tall crane that towers above the cathedral and is used to lift construction material in and out. “Everyone is watching you,” he says. “Without the crane, nothing happens.” His father was a crane operator before him.

The process had a major disadvantage, however: After the photographer covered the glass plate with syrupy collodion, then bathed it in a solution of light-sensitive silver nitrate—each plate had to be prepared by hand—the picture had to be taken and the plate developed within 10 minutes or so, while the collodion was still wet.

Nadar was unfazed by that limitation: He loaded his dark room equipment onto a hot air balloon to make the first aerial photographs of Paris. Van Houtryve didn’t go that far; he had drones to make his stunning aerial videos of the church, both inside and out. But he and two assistants did hump all his gear up the stairs of the bell towers to take portraits of the grotesques.

This creature watches over the nave from the back side of the north bell tower.
Drawings by Viollet-le-Duc show his designs for the gargoyles he created to replace medieval ones. Unlike the chimeras, which were purely decorative, gargoyles functioned as rainspouts, funneling water away from the stone walls through their open mouths.
Photograph by Louis Daguerre, Granger

The portraits of humans working on Notre Dame were made in one of the containers behind the cathedral where the restoration team has its offices. Each subject had to hold perfectly still for eight seconds.

The atmosphere was particularly charged, van Houtryve says, when he photographed Jean-Louis Georgelin, the imperious and impatient five-star general who was summoned out of retirement by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the restoration of Notre Dame, and who is trying to keep his “task force” on track to complete the job by 2024. But the picture captures a side of Georgelin you might miss when you talk with him—a bit of the weight he must feel.

There are 54 chimeras in all, including this elephant.
General Jean-Louis Georgelin, former chairman of the French joint chiefs and a devout Catholic, presides over the public entity set up to restore Notre Dame with 840 million euros of private donations. That outpouring of generosity “shows you the extent to which Notre Dame is at the heart of the history of this country, more even than the French imagined themselves,” he says. “It’s really the soul of this country, even if the French have turned their backs on religious practice.”
Viollet-le-Duc had a predilection for cats.
Pascal Prunet, a chief architect of historic monuments, is assisting his colleague Villeneuve at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, he himself is overseeing the restoration of the cathedral at Nantes, which suffered a less-publicized but disastrous fire in 2020—and which his own father had restored after an earlier fire in 1972.

A landscape of ruins

When Viollet-le-Duc began restoring Notre Dame at age 30, he had already been working for four years on the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene at Vézelay in Burgundy. He ended up saving them both from dilapidation. Both are now World Heritage Sites.

But in both cases Viollet-le-Duc also took liberties with the design and structure of the building that his successors today would never dream of. At Notre Dame, for example, “he demolished the transept gables, he rebuilt the rose windows from a to z,” says his biographer Olivier Poisson. In his quest for an ideal Gothic cathedral, one that may never have existed before, he added not only the grotesques but also a spire that was taller and more ornate than the medieval original.

Modern restorers don’t condone such transgressions against historical authenticity, but they’re now part of the historical fabric of the church; the spire was a defining part of the Parisian landscape. Though Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect at Notre Dame today, reveres Viollet-le-Duc, he aims only to restore the great man’s work—not his practice of restoration.

Viollet-le-Duc restored all 24 side chapels in the cathedral, adding new murals and stained glass. This watercolor shows his designs for one of the chapels in the nave
Photograph by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Resource NY
Flavie Serrière Vincent-Petit restores old stained glass, and she also creates new works in a medium that dates to the fifth century. “If for Christians, God had not been Light, stained glass would never have been born,” she says.
Philippe Jost, General Georgelin’s second-in-command, is a former defense department engineer. This is his first time working on a building. But he has long experience managing costs and deadlines on other expensive construction projects—submarines, for example.

“I’m not looking to have an ideal monument,” Villeneuve says. “I’m going to restore all the strata that have accumulated in the cathedral.”  

In doing so, he adds, he’ll try to save what he calls the “expression lines” on the face of the church—the visual evidence that it had lived and aged and endured in Paris for more than eight centuries before being visited by the worst calamity in its history.

A horned demon stares out toward the towers of Saint Sulpice on the Left Bank.
Benoît Congy and other rope specialists have been crucial to the initial phase of Notre Dame’s restoration. It was they who removed burnt timbers from on top of the vaults. They also dismantled, piece by piece, scaffolding that had been damaged by the fire and threatened to fall on the church.

Slowing time

Viollet-le-Duc’s world was one of accelerating change. In 1844, the year he received the commission for Notre Dame, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram, and during the two decades it took to restore the cathedral, telegraphy as well as photography spread rapidly. France was just then building a national network of railway lines. Baron Haussman was tearing down wide swaths of medieval Paris, including right in front of Notre Dame, to build the boulevards that exist today.

It must have made the preservation of one iconic monument from the Middle Ages seem especially important. And as the shocked reaction in France and around the world to the 2019 fire demonstrated, it is even more important now. At a time when the ground beneath our feet is lurching in so many ways, people crave a few fixed points—places that stay the same, places we can all agree are worth preserving.

This photograph made by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 is probably the oldest surviving one of Notre Dame. Made from the Quai de la Tournelle on the Left Bank, it’s a mirror image: In real life the cathedral would be facing toward the left.
Photograph by Louis Daguerre

The thing that van Houtryve likes most about the collodion process is what distinguishes it from the rest of his professional life, which has included stints as a war correspondent and news photographer for the AP.

“The whole process forces one to slow down and really observe the scene before taking a picture,” he says. “In our age of disposable snapshots from phones, it is a really good exercise for a photographer to slow down.”

As he mastered the artisanal technique, he became able to make images that looked flawless, like Nadar’s portrait of Viollet-le-Duc. But in the process, he says, “they lost some of their charm. The ripples, dust, fogging, and scratches are part of what makes old photography so interesting.

Tomas van Houtryve had two assistants to help him make his collodion pictures of the chimeras on the north bell tower. The things they carried up more than 200 spiral steps: two small tables, a folding stool, four chemical trays, the dark box, five liters of tap water, a stack of glass plates, bottles of collodion and other chemicals, and the camera and tripod.
Photograph by Julien Wellford

“So I decided to reverse course and loosen up. Rather than striving for the very cleanest image, I give the variables a wider margin to create blemishes and accidents during the process. The blemishes also accentuate our links to the past”—a bit like the “expression lines” on an old cathedral.

Paris-based photographer Tomas van Houtryve used his 19th-century camera to explore the hidden history of the American West in his book Lines and Lineage. 

Environment editor Robert Kunzig lived in France for 12 years.                    

The French government has created a special public entity to restore Notre Dame Cathedral. Follow their work on Instagram @rebatirnotredamedeparis

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