Catherine E. Clark is a connoisseur of the photo archive. An associate professor of French studies and Class of 1947 Career Development Professor at MIT, she reviewed scores of snapshots—including thousands submitted to the amateur photo contest “C’était Paris en 1970”— while researching her book, Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860–1970.

The book presents a study of photographic history in Paris and a new methodology for using photographs as historical documents. How we think about them, Clark suggests in this excerpt adapted from the introduction, can be informed by the surprising roots of the word “cliché.”

In one of the most visited and thus most photographed cities in the world, history has come down through the generations as the history of photography. Looking through these pictures reveals a familiar narrative of urban renovations—the World’s Fairs, revolution, war, and street life—in short, the myriad aspects of urban life for over a century. But photographs are not just representations of the city’s past: their production, collection, and circulation are part and parcel of Paris’s history. Looking at and around photographs helps us to write a social history of photography.

This approach investigates three levels of meaning held within the photo. Photographs, first, offer us access to the historical events they depict. Second, and inseparable from the first, they capture “the history of photography” or the history of the making of the images. The photo always records the act of photography itself, the social interaction between the photographer and the subject. Photographers are just as much players on the scene as those they capture. Historians of photography and historians who use photos often focus on these two levels of meaning, reading them as images that tell us about the events that occurred in front of the lens and about how they were captured. Their focus on the immediacy of the photograph, however, can cause them to overlook its history as a material object that acts in the world. Because they are objects, rather than mere disembodied images, photos are traces of the history of their preservation and use. We must accordingly account for a third level of historicity rooted in their materiality: “the history of photographs.” By virtue of their existence in an archive, on a printed page, or on the wall of an exhibition, photos bear witness to the actions that brought them there and reveal histories of acting in the world.

How, though, does one read this context? Such analysis involves the sort of careful detective work borrowed from the methods of the social and material history of ideas: notably histories of printing, publication, and circulation, studies of reception, or the history of narrative structures, footnotes, and timelines. The physical details of the cards— from the age of their paper to whether they are handwritten or typed—in the catalog of photographs at Paris’s historical library, the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, tell the history of the archive’s growth, purview, and organization. The photographs themselves, which may be glued to backings, bear stamps, have notes about loans, or even original and then revised captions, also tell of the archive’s uses. In illustrated books, captions and surrounding texts reveal how authors, editors, and designers conceived of the function of their illustrations. At other times close attention to the composition of a photograph uncovers something about the influence of past images of Paris. After all, images dialogue with other images as much as with the world outside the frame.

There are two main types of images at work in the history of Paris’s photographic history. First are those created expressly for the future. These “picture now, use later” images illustrated preservation discussions, supported mapping projects, or were sold to the press, but they were also intended to one day serve as historical documents of the moment of their making. The second are photographs taken and circulated for numerous reasons that have subsequently been reinterpreted as pictures of the past. Not all photographs fall into the first category, but any can join the second.

Because time itself seemed to speed up over the course of the twentieth century, that “one day” when photographs might serve as fragments of the past seemed to grow closer and closer. In the first decades of the twentieth century, it appeared that photographs of the present would be pictures of the past within two generations. In 1944, it was just a matter of weeks. By 1951, critics described pictures of the present as images of the past in the same breath. The use of the past imperfect tense— c’etait, this was, Paris—in the very name of the 1970 contest suggests that the camera’s products were part of history even before the shutter opened.

With so many pictures available, what of the risk that looking at photohistories of the capital or the use of photographs in historical celebrations might just open up onto a history of the tired circulation of clichés? After all, even the most cursory browse through the kiosks that line the quays of the Seine, the tables of half-price books at stores such as the Mona Lisait, or the gleaming aisles of today’s FNACs turns up generic Paris picture books: ones published, vaunted, and sold ad nauseam at discount. Don’t these books and their seemingly endless, identical photos enable the stale recycling of history that epitomizes the “museum-city?” If so, how do we get beyond the idea of such photos and their ubiquitous presence as clichés, and worse, is there any service the photo can provide the city other than to reproduce it as a cliché?

We must start by rethinking the very term “cliché.” Since the late nineteenth century, in both English and its original French, “cliché” has denoted an idea or image, repeated so often that it has become tired, unremarkable, and ultimately meaningless. Before that, however, it had two other meanings, each of which originated in the material culture of mass print and image production. First, cliché meant a metal printing plate cast from set movable type or a combination of type and images on metal plates or wooden blocks. Secondly, after the invention of photography, the term used to denote the sensitized glass plates on which the camera captured images: in other words, the photographic negative. While these two meanings are technical or historical in English, they have endured in French. “Cliché” also later assumed a third French sense, now a bit dated, as a generic umbrella for any sort of photographic image. In both languages, the cliché as a trite idea thus only appeared on the heels of these other denotations, as the product of mass print culture, of reproduced and reproducible ways of thinking about the world.

We need to recuperate those older meanings: to read photographs as clichés, in other words, invokes a methodology that conceives of them as mass-produced objects functioning in close relationships to other types of images and texts. To do so means considering the material conditions of the photograph’s production and circulation in the world before understanding it as hackneyed or trite. The multiple meanings of “cliché” also make it essential to explore photography’s relationship to other pictures and texts. If photography became a dominant means of preserving the city, this does not mean that Parisians lost interest in the rich visual record of the city’s past that survives in paintings and prints. Individuals worked out their ideas about how photographs captured and evoked the past in relationship to these other types of pictures. By employing the word “cliché,” this book obliges us to also bear these nonphotographic antecedents and influences in mind when looking at their photographic counterparts.

Reproduced and adapted from Paris and the Cliché of History (2018) by Catherine E. Clark. By permission of Oxford University Press.

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