April 17, 2019

Photographing Disaster, Part 2: Notre Dame

Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco, Exhibition, ,

Photographing Disaster, Part 2: Notre Dame

“There can be no image that is not about destruction and survival…”
                                                           —Eduardo Cadava, “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins”[1]

On Monday, I posted a blog entitled “Photographing Disaster: Depicting the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake,” in which I tried to imagine what it would be like to see the visual landscape of a city change so dramatically in a matter of minutes. Within the hour, news about the calamitous fire at Notre Dame began to spread throughout the office. It was in this moment that I found myself looking at two disparate images side by side—an experience familiar to the art historian. In this case, however, one of the images was from 1906 while the other was alive, mutating before my eyes as I traced the fire’s ebb and flow in real time on my screen.

Stockton Street between Geary and Post Streets. San Francisco Subjects, Photography Collection, PC-SF-EQ (1906), California Historical Society 
AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu

I find it hard to put into words how I feel about the cathedral and the fire, but that doesn’t surprise me. When I think about Notre Dame, I think mostly about its silence. Despite the throngs of noisy tourists that swarm around it, the outside of the building can feel as quiet as the chapels inside. Quiet like the Seine at night. Quiet like the gargoyle who rests his head in his hands as he gazes across the city, ignoring the statue of the bird who seemingly squawks in his ear. Quiet like stone.

When I studied abroad in Paris, I lived just three blocks from Notre Dame. I felt lucky to be in France but also lonely, having left the US for the first time to live in a place where I barely spoke the language. I loved walking to the park behind the cathedral and looking up at the strange flying buttresses that stretched up to support its body like lanky arms. I remember thinking how this was the oldest building I had ever seen, and feeling comforted by how small that made me feel. Quiet like the trees that grow up around it. Quiet like me, not speaking the language.

Writing for the New York Times in the wake of the fire, Michael Kimmelman called Notre Dame “a kind of palimpsest of French history,” referring to a manuscript page that has been washed so that it can be reused but where traces of older writing still remain. I like that description. What I think he means is that Notre Dame bears the physical traces of the religious, political, and social groups who have, throughout time, modified and coopted it for their various causes. For Kimmelman, Notre Dame is reflective of French history only insofar as its historical significance is always shifting. His description reminds me that written history is chatty, but physical histories—the objects, works of art, and buildings that endure—are eerily quiet. This makes historical objects and buildings susceptible to appropriation, as Kimmelman notes. But it also imbues them with a subtle poetic power. Their quiet humbles me.

Ultimately, though, I find the quiet power of Notre Dame to be a motivating, and not a silencing, force. Reflecting on photographs of ruins, the scholar Eduardo Cadava has described how such an image “shows and bears witness to what history has silenced, to what, no longer here…haunts us, and encourages us to remember the deaths and losses for which we remain, still today, responsible.”[1] Like the photographs taken in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, visuals of Notre Dame do not evoke permanence but instead remind us of just how precarious our world can be—and of the work we need to do to take responsibility for the violent histories these objects, images, buildings, and ruins represent.

I think many of us found the fire on Monday to be too pointed as a symbol for the rampant degradation of our cultural commitments to liberty and equality, or as reflective of the fact that these commitments were hollow to begin with. Many of us also felt dismayed as we realized that other such atrocities, including the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, garnered less attention. I’m not sure what to make of it all. But I feel some small comfort knowing that so many eyes were focused on something ancient, and on the importance of preserving it. My hope is that the quiet power of such an event will encourage us to reflect on these losses, and to do what we can to prevent them in the future.

[1] Eduardo Cadava, “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins,” October Vol. 96 (Spring 2001): 35.
[1] Cadava, 36.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society