Special Exhibit: Excavation of the Paris Metro

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Construction of the Paris Metropolitan subway system, which began at the start of the 20th century, was a monumental undertaking that helped to reshape Paris. The excavations also unearthed some of the city’s forgotten history. Already a thriving town known in Roman times as “Lutetia,” the underworld of Paris contained millennia rather than centuries of history. At the start of the 19th century, for example, Paris sewers remained in use which had been constructed long before the discovery of North and South America, as vividly described by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, “The Entrails of the Monster”. In one of the views from this series, what appear to be Roman-era bas-reliefs are shown found during one of the Metros excavations.

This significant public works project was magnficently documented through a series of photographs commissioned by the city, not commonly encountered. Subjects include subterranean photographs as well as expansive construction views. Early work on the Metro involved open excavations from street level, juxtaposing dramatic feats of construction with classical Parisian surroundings.

The period prints from this series used in the present exhibition measure roughly 6.5 x 9 inches (17x23 cm), on decorative mounts 10.5 x 13 inches (27x35 cm) with imprinted titles, dates and identifications. Crisply detailed, the images were evidently contact-printed from full-size glass negatives and dramatically capture the energy behind this vast undertaking. A set of the photographs in possession of the Paris Municipal Archives were used as illustrations in the superb Le Métro de Paris 1899-1911: Images de la Construction (1999).

Images and text copyright © 2000-2008 by Christopher Wahren Fine Photographs

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Works Cited & Recommended Reading:
Tricoire, Jean (ed.) Le Metro de Paris: 1899-1911: Images de le Construction, Archives de Paris (1999).
Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables, “The Entrails of the Monster”.