Photographer’s Guide to the Catacombs of Paris

“Hauntingly Beautiful Bones”

Photo by Ann Black

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Buried beneath the streets of Paris lies a secret world. A once unknown place where ancient rites and bizarre secret societies once met to commune in the company of the dead. Today the carefully arranged piles of skulls and skeletons have morphed to a macabre art display that is perfectly fitting for our photographic fancies. Step inside the Catacombs of Paris and capture the bizarre beauty of this hidden world in this spooky October Photography Guide.

Bones Arranged in Catacombs of Paris - Photo by Tiffany Fugere
Bones Arranged in Catacombs of Paris - Photo by Tiffany Fugere

History of the Catacombes de Paris

The gruesome history of the Catacombs of Paris begins in the 1700s. Paris, by this time, had grown beyond its infrastructure, with thousands of residents and millions of dead. The cemeteries that had served the city for centuries were now beginning to overflow and fall apart. When corpses exhumed themselves following a wall collapse at Saint Innocents-cemetery, Louis the XVI was under tremendous pressure to do something about it. A decree went out that would repurpose the long-abandoned mine shafts lying beneath the Paris streets. These unused tunnels and chambers would become the perfect resting place for Paris’s dead. Workers descended on the city’s condemned cemeteries and pulled the dead from the graves, tombs, and sarcophaguses. Once liberated from their eternal slumber, the workers loaded the bones into covered wagons. Then, by lantern light, these wagons creakily transported 6 million corpses under cover of darkness to the abandoned mine shafts.

Closeup of Skulls in Catacombs of Paris - Photo by Ann Black

Initially, the workers simply piled the bones in the mines cavernous halls. There the dead remained, largely forgotten for many years. Then in the 1800s, Louis Etienne Hericart de Thury began transforming the catacombs into a grotesquely beautiful location. Later, the catacombs found new life as a grisly private event location for Paris’s elite, hosting cocktails and concerts within its haunting halls. Eventually, the Catacombs of Paris were opened to the public following a final renovation in 1874.

Catacombs of Paris Bone Pile - Photo by skeeze
Catacombs of Paris Bone Pile - Photo by skeeze

Cryptic Cinema

In addition to the creepiness of piled bones, another mystery surrounds the catacombs. In 2004, police were conducting training in a previously uncharted portion of the catacombs. Then they came across a surprising secret in a previously uncharted part of the catacombs. Deep within the caverns, they found a fully equipped theatre, tavern and restaurant. Complete with professionally installed telephones, electrical outlets and lighting, this previously unknown complex baffled the police. Speculation abounds even today as to its use. Some speculate that the presence of swastikas, celtic crosses, and Stars of David suggest a perplexingly schizophrenic sects meeting area. Perhaps most creepy of all, police returned a few days after the initial discovery to find the electrical and telephone lines cut and a note which read “Do not try to find us.”

Photographing the Catacombs of Paris

  • Tickets to visit the Catacombs will run you about €30.00 for a basic audio guided tour and as much as €109.00 for a semi-private tour that will give you access to parts otherwise inaccessible. We recommend paying for the guided tour as there will be fewer people and more time and space to shoot. We also recommend buying your tickets in advance from their website here: http://catacombes.paris.fr/en 
  • Like most historic places flash photography, tripods or large bags are not welcome. These rules present a challenge as the catacombs are not well lit or designed with the photographer in mind. We recommend mini-tripods (small enough to fit in your pocket) and the fastest lens you own on a high ISO camera.
  • The light is not jsut a challenge because there isn’t much of it, but also because what little light there is will be harsh and yellow or green. Anticipate that a mix of fluorescent, tungsten, and who knows what else will illuminate the catacombs. If you don’t have a grey card, we recommend getting one and learning how to use it.
  • Small flashlights may be useful as well for creating your illumination, but don’t disturb other visitors and have respect for the dead.
  • Anticipate that you will probably spend a lot of time walking in the catacombs, ascending and descending staircases. Pack light and be aware that a visit to the Catacombs may be taxing on the body.

Conclusion

The Catacombs of Paris may be one of the creepiest photo destinations in the world. Needless to say, this photo location is not for the faint of heart. But for the adventurous photographer it might be the perfect ghoulish destination.

Catacombs of Paris Detail of Skull - Photo by Fred Pixlab
Catacombs of Paris Detail of Skull - Photo by Fred Pixlab

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