The Paris Commune was the first important event in French history to be the object of full-scale photographic coverage, as the American Civil War had been a few years before. Part of this extensive photographic production is gathered in this exhibition, the purpose of which is not to relate the history of the Commune, but rather to look at the manner in which this event was perceived and conceived by photographers. These shots, unlike engraved illustrations, have rarely been studied: what do they represent exactly? Who were they produced by? In what conditions and to what purpose? How were they interpreted at the time?
Y. BondyPortrait of a national guard dead in action, probably made un a Parisian hospital© Montreuil, musée de l'Histoire vivante
The vision of the Commune proposed by photography differs from that offered by engravings and drawings of the same period. It is more static, less dramatic and generally less partisan. A mere fraction of the professional photographers active in Paris a the time went out in the streets to document the insurrection, leaving precious images (barricades and groups of insurgents around the Hôtel de Ville and the Place Vendôme, the two centres of the insurrection) still hampered by technical constraints, and among which the production of Bruno Braquehais stands out. Untiringly scouring the capital for new subjects, Braquehais was without a doubt the single photographer who showed the greatest interest in the insurrection and insurgents. On the other hand, photographers remained blind to the violence and repression: the pictures of the dead that subsist to this day were mostly taken on the initiative of the Commune government, towards administrative ends, in morgues and hospitals, in order to identify the national guards dead in action. These shots were not the object of any trade.
Although reticent when confronted by the event itself, the photographers amply covered the aftermath of the Commune and in particular the ruins in Paris and the outskirts of the city. These dramatic, spectacular pictures, then described as "picturesque", were taken for the benefit of the numerous "tourists" drawn into the capital city by this show of desolation – the aftermath of fires lit by insurgents, bombardment by the Prussians or by the followers of the official government based in Versailles. Sold in diverse formats, individually or in albums, and published as engravings in the newspapers, these photographs show an entirely devastated Paris.At the same time, the first political photomontages appeared, with evocative titles - Crimes of the Commune (Eugène Appert), Martyrs of La Roquette (Hippolyte Vauvray) - faked pictures, with an anti-communard purpose, reconstructions after the event of episodes from the Commune with the help of actors in costume, highlighting mostly the executions of hostages by insurgents in May 1871.This period was also marked by the extensive use for the first time by public authorities of photography as a means of judicial identification. Photographs were taken of arrested communards in Versailles prisons, and shots of insurgents on the run were sent to border checkpoints. In their use of these portraits of insurgents, the police authorities endeavoured to control closely their distribution. Sale of pictures of the Commune was forbidden at the end of 1871, as it was claimed that such pictures disturbed public order, reminding people of distressing events. Only "purely artistic" pictures of Paris ruins escaped this policy.The exhibition includes about 120 documents, mostly photographs but also engravings and archive material from French public and private collections.