Week 24: Going underground !

You have all heard the stories – there is a vast network of tunnels under Paris. Well it’s true.  Some history: the soft limestone mined south of Paris had long been used to make buildings – Notre Dame amongst them. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, the city had expanded to the sites of these ancient quarries, and what is worse, buildings were disappearing into the ground, sucked into the ancient subterranean quarries through subsidence. Action needed to be taken. So, the “Inspection des carrières (IDC)” was created, whose mission was to shore up all these underground building sites (twenty-five meters and more below the ground) and link them together by tunnels so that regular inspections could be carried out. The two main networks in Paris are in the 13th and 14th arr., although they are not connected because an underground river, La Bièvre, cuts them in two. At one time, many public and private buildings had their own access to the networks. If you are walking in the right part of town and see a manhole cover marked ‘IDC’ then it goes down there 25m below the ground, but probably it’s welded shut. But if you know the right people…

Well, I do know the right people. I had been down there before a few times, several years ago now. Of course (and that is why we are here) I thought it  it might be fun to go down there with a film camera . Look on the internet and you will find any nice number of colour pictures of the carrières taken with ultra-sensitive digital cameras. But what if you only had a few rolls of Tri-X @1600 and a 50 mm f/2 lens? I considered taking an old SLR, but I realised very quickly that focussing in very dark conditions would be  easier with the Leica. But big advances in LED lighting technology helped me a lot too!

We descended through a manhole cover in the 13 arr, in the middle of the afternoon. We had a few curious looks from pedestrians. It is not a good idea to hang around, as there is certainly a risk of a fine from a passing policeman. At the bottom of the ladder, 25 metres below ground, it was humid, warm and dusty. Walking briskly  one is quickly completely covered in sweat, and the viewfinder and my glasses quickly fogged up. Almost impossible to see the rangefinder patch! Next time, I will be zone focussing :-).  I had a powerful headlamp, which helped to light the way ahead and also to take pictures: I didn’t bother to change the aperture and film speed from f/2 and 1/30s for most of the visit. I admit that a 50mm lens is perhaps not the best choice in such a confined space, but that’s the challenge, right?

Here are some pictures of the tunnels. There are several tens of kilometers of tunnels like this in the 13ème.  Note to self: next time, don’t set the focus on infinity. These images look strange, it almost like there is a problem of scale. The focus definitely should have been closer.

And then there are the plaques and inscriptions. Paris below ground often refers to streets and places that no longer exist, a past world which has vanished. The “Abbattoir” mentioned below no longer exists.

Of course there are tons of urban legends about these tunnels. Yes, there really is a bar, and place to show movies. Here is the bar:


The bar


Of course, there are also sculptures and graffiti, here are some:


Walking around underground, every so often one sees light from the outside world, twenty five meters above your head. And inaccessible, if there are no ladder-rungs:


Not so far from this light, people are drinking coffee.

This view, on a previous trip underground, inspired the last paragraph of a poem I wrote many years ago for a great Polish poet…

I suppose deep underground one could get frightened, frightened of being lost and not finding the way to the surface. Of course, there are some famous stories of people who did get lost. But down there I am never frightened. It feels so calm and quiet. This is probably one of the quietest parts of Paris. Even more so because we were down there on Sunday afternoon, and didn’t meet anyone: most people are there in the evening, Friday or Saturday nights. And of course, friends also knew their way around very well. Here they are consulting a plan:


Left or right?

And that’s it ! We emerged from a manhole cover near the peripherique in the pouring rain, about three or so hours since we entered.

I think the photographs turned out reasonably well – although I admit that I broke my rule and went onto the internet shortly afterwards and bought a cheap wide-angle low-light lens (the much maligned Nokton 35/1.4) on eBay, but providing you take care, a 50mm can be good even in confined spaces like these. What is wonderful about film is that black really is black. There is nothing on the negative. You can’t get blacks as black as that from digital !   Just be careful about steaming up the viewfinder!  These photographs were even taken with the ’50 year old lens’ that I talked about previously.  Next week: a short trip to Holland! Thanks!

Technical details: all photographs are with an M6 and a Summicron-M 50mm. Shot on Tri-X 400 pushed to @1600 in HC110 dil. B for 16mins.

5 thoughts on “Week 24: Going underground !

  1. Very cool pictures. I would not enjoy doing this myself. I’ve been to the catacombs but that is a defined space where you can’t get lost. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least one bad horror movie about getting lost in these tunnels. Which gives your photos even more atmosphere!

    Liked by 1 person

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