Empty streets

Birdsong. That’s what I hear these days when I wake up. Not the sounds of neighbours going to work or getting the kids ready for school. But the sound of robins and sparrows and starlings.

I hope our friends in Paris are also able to hear the birds, too. Certainly the sounds of traffic have dwindled. My stepson Alex sent us a video taken from a drone flying over an apparently empty city. Here is a still:

Of course, the residents are still there, they’re just not visible. And that made me think of a famous photograph, one taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 or 1839 from the window of his studio, looking over the Boulevard du Temple.

Although the street seems empty, it would have been filled with people, horses, and vehicles, but given the exposure time of 20 to 30 minutes, all movement was erased, leaving behind only  a blur of a man on the pavement, with his foot raised and another blur in front of him that is presumably a shoe shiner. The two were there long enough to be captured by Daguerre. A curious immortality for a boulevardier and a practitioner of one of Paris’s petits métiers.

The same phenomenon appears to be at work in the view of the now-vanished Tuileries Palace by Edouard-Denis Baldus, taken in about 1860. Two men stand in conversation in the middle of the foreground and two small urchins crouch near the entrance to the fenced-off garden on the left. Nobody else is visible. Surely others passed this central location while the photograph was being taken.

Or not. Even when exposure times were shortened to allow photographs of moving traffic and pedestrians, photographers such as Charles Marville and Eugène Atget preferred to show images of a deserted Paris. They got up early in the morning specifically to take pictures of empty streets and vacant alleys. They were documenting buildings, not street life.

This is Charles Marville’s photo of the rue de Rivoli. When is that street ever empty? Yet here it looks as if the city has been abandoned.

Indeed, architectural photography, which avoided the untidiness that people represented, was one of the earliest forms of photography. As Sabrina Lynn Hughes wrote in an M.A. thesis called “Empty Streets in the Capital of Modernity: Formation of Lieux de Mémoire in Parisian Street Photography From Daguerre to Atget”:

Photography’s auspicious arrival coincided with the beginnings of official architectural preservation concerns in France. In 1837, the Comte de Montalivet and François Guizot, the present and former Ministers of the Interior, created the Commission des Monuments Historiques to survey the state of national monuments… Photographers would aid in the inventory process, creating an objective image of a structure’s condition at the moment of exposure; architects viewing the resulting images would identify the buildings most in need of repair and protection (pp. 24–25).

Edouard-Denis Baldus* was one of the photographers hired by the Commission, and for this work, he travelled through Burgundy and Provence. Meanwhile, back in Paris, the architectural scenery was already changing, as Ms Hughes recounts:

[When Baldus returned from his mission,] demolitions in Paris were underway. While Georges-Eugène Haussmann has been seen as the progenitor of modernization in Paris, Jean-Jacques Berger, Prefect of the Seine from 1848 until 1852, actually began some of the building projects more comprehensively executed by his infamous successor. Berger’s priority was dégagement, the liberation of  architectural monuments from parasitic structures and slums that had formed around them over decades, even centuries. Therefore, monuments were being cleared of conjoined buildings to make a more visually pleasing view of the city’s architectural patrimony (pp. 26–27).

One example was the Tour St-Jacques, which now sits in a garden-like setting. The tower was the only remaining part of a 16th-century church that was mostly demolished during the Revolution. Another of Baldus’s photographs shows it in the process of dégagement.

As usual, nobody in sight.

This trend of photographing empty streets and buildings continued well into the 20th century. The found photographs captured in Patrice Roy’s fascinating book Paris Marais 43, were taken in 1943 by A. Cayeux and F. Nobécourt, who clearly made every effort to avoid including messy humans. Even the café tables are deserted in this photo from the rue St-Antoine.

But Roy is not fooled. In a section at the back of the book labelled “Fantômes,” he documents 20 instances in which people are visible in the photographs, sometimes in shop window reflections, sometimes in blurry motion that makes them almost transparent, and sometimes in unexpected corners.

Here is one example, also from the rue St-Antoine. If you look closely, you will see several phantoms on the sidewalk, and one woman very clearly at an upper window.

No, there is nothing new about images of an apparently depopulated Paris. But the population is there, if you know where to look. And the larks are still bravely singing. Even now.


I will leave you with a sonnet about birdsong. A few days after everything shut down in Toronto, as Norman and I were taking an early morning walk, we heard a cardinal. I gather there are no cardinals in France (other than the ecclesiastical version), but the crested red birds are a welcome sight here in spring. The following day, I wrote this:

The days lie flat as graves amid the grass.
The news is grim: life cancelled, closed, postponed.
We look for ways to make the long days pass,
We’ve reached our friends, we’ve e-mailed, texted, phoned.
The travellers return, the kids stay in,
The lights are off in churches and in shops,
The streets and skies have lost their normal din,
All movement ceases, the machine just stops.
But no, the spring approaches, sap runs free
Our neighbour’s snowdrops one more time appear.
A cardinal is singing in a tree,
Unheeding of our silence and our fear.
The quiet is not quiet – we have heard
The Resurrection from a single bird.

We wish you, our readers, all the best during this difficult time, and we invite comments in which you tell us a bit about how you are, wherever you are, and how you are living through this peculiar time. Are the streets empty where you are? Are the birds singing?



Text by Philippa Campsie; Daguerre and Baldus photos from Wikimedia Commons; Marville photo from Bibliothèques spécialisées de la Ville de Paris; Cayeux and Nobécourt photographs from Paris Marais 43 (Créaphis Editions, 2015).


* Baldus is an unusual character. He was born in Germany, served with the Prussian army, moved to Paris in about 1838, found his métier as a photographer after 10 years of rejection  as a painter, helped found the Société Héliographique, exhibited his work at the Exposition Universelle in 1855, and as a result, received a commission from the Baron James de Rothschild to photograph his railway (Chemin de Fer du Nord) and its environs for a special album to be presented to Queen Victoria. This led to further commissions and considerable success. However, there was a secret in his past. In a recent exhibit of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the curator revealed that to supplement his meagre pay as a Prussian soldier, Baldus had resorted to forging money. Apparently he was better at that than at legitimate artwork, but not as good as he was at photography. The German police never caught up with him.


About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris streets and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Empty streets

  1. Bernard KIRCHHOFF says:

    Thanks. Always enjoy your posts. Cheers, Barney Kirchhoff      

  2. ROY says:

    Merci pour ce passionnant post !

    À Island sous le soleil, le silence humain est total. On n’entend que le vent et les oiseaux. On croirait l’au-delà.




  3. Jackie says:

    Love your sonnet about birdsong.♥

  4. On our rural walks in Kent, England,we hear birdsong and the wind and the occasional car on a faraway road. The tractors continue to plough and spray the local apple and pear orchards and there are planes overhead but we notice them when they pass. This is life from 50 or more years ago. This is not normal, indeed I hope it doesn’t ever happen in our lifetimes again, but for a few weeks, it’s interesting if ominous.

  5. bowtie6 says:

    Very interesting article. I couldn’t help thinking about the work and preparation required in order to set up the daguerreotype device that was probably used to take some of these pictures. So think about it, for each of these incredible images, wonder how many others didn’t make the cut.

  6. Jan Whitaker says:

    Hooray for cardinals! It’s a beautiful warm-ish Sunday here and people are out strolling. We took a lovely walk atop a dike which we had been meaning to investigate for years. I guess the coronavirus is good for something.

  7. Berenice McDayter says:

    I enjoyed the poem, and the post. Please don’t stop writing–for any reason! Stay well!

  8. Susan Scott says:

    We are very lucky here in Marin County, California. Only 10 deaths, if you consider the larger tragedies in other places. My birding skills are still with me. I hear birds every day. Some less welcome than others, but we get by. A pair of Killdeer are back in my front yard. 2 eggs due to hatch in about a week or so. Last year 4 eggs and 3 survived. Such is life. Susan Scott, retired.

Comments are closed.