Mission Heliographique – The Patrimony of Paris in Photos

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By Jonathan H


As home to a burgeoning population of urban explorers, France has always been ahead of its time. In fact, the government sanctioned and sent photographers across the country in the mid-19th century on the taxpayer’s dime. The photographers’ goal was to explore and photograph the crumbling architecture and infrastructure of the country.

In 1851, the Commission de Monuments Historiques embarked on an unprecedented survey of the French landscape. Five photographers traveled to the far reaches of France. Their targets would be the buildings that made up the heritage of France – the “architectural patrimony” of the country. It was to be known as a Mission Heliographique, and the photographers returned with plates and prints portraying buildings – many of which no longer exist. Sadly, upon return, their negatives remained largely unpublished for over a century.

An image of a church entry by Hippolyte Bayard

An image of a church entry by Hippolyte Bayard

Edouard Baldus (1813-1889), Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887), Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Henri Le Secq (1818-1882), and Auguste Mestral were chosen to photograph France’s built heritage (you can download a detailed analysis of Le Secq’s 1851 photos here – 3MB PDF). The Societe Heliographique – with the financial support of the French government – had chosen these photographers as the nation’s sole documentarians of their crumbling and ‘archaic’ architecture. Each photographer was told to visit a specific region of France. Baldus went to the south and east; Le Gray embarked on a journey to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley-Blois, as well as numerous small towns with Romanesque religious edifices; Le Gray and Mestral traveled to the yet-to-be-restored town of Carcassonne and other sites in south-central and central France; Le Secq was dispatched to the north and east side of France, where he found towering Gothic cathedrals; and Bayard (the only stalwart user of glass negatives) went to Brittany and Normandy to document the quaint architecture of Coastal France.


Photos of (from left to right) Gustave Le Gray, Hippolyte Bayard, Henri Le Secq, and Auguste Mestral

The five photographers returned in the Winter of 1851 with more than 300 photographs. There was much fanfare upon their return. But the photos were immediately retrieved and locked in a drawer. Bayard’s glass negatives are yet to be found.

The Mission Heliographique was the first state-sponsored, photographic survey of architecture. Yet the visionary parent society, the Societe Heliographique, only survived for less than three years, from 1851-1853. Even Le Gray, one of the five ‘esteemed’ photographers on the expedition – found himself in Syria and Egypt in 1860, on the run from tenacious creditors. Le Gray later died in Cairo, perhaps still incognito due to his debts.

The ruins of Karnak, by Gustave Le Gray, while he was exiled in Karnak.

The ruins of Karnak, by Gustave Le Gray, while he was exiled in Egypt.

The expedition’s failure as an artistic polemic to save architecture was perhaps – ironically – due to its success. According to Naomi Rosenblum, in “Documentation: Landscape and Architecture,” The photographers’ skill and artistry helped doom the project. The beautifully composed images of decaying buildings made them appear in a positive light, which did little to encourage the restoration work for which the Mission Heliographique had originally embarked. It was said that – soon after the Mission Heliographique – Paris lost 70% of its architecture due to the urban renewal efforts of Napoleon III under the architectural supervision of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

A Church in France by Hippolyte Bayard.

A Church in France by Hippolyte Bayard.

Ironically, Napoleon saw the great potential of the new medium of photography and of the Mission Heliographique, in particular. Says Naomi Rosenblum, in A World History of Photography, “The [French] government continued to regard photography as a tool integral to its expansive domestic and foreign programs, commissioning documentations of the countryside, the railroad lines, and of natural disasters as evidence of its concern for national programs and problems.”


Napoleon III used photography to propagandize to the French population and monumentalize the new architecture he had created under his rulership. Within a decade of the Mission Heliographique, Charles Marville was hired by the City of Paris to document the Medieval passageways soon-to-be demolished by the wrecking ball of Haussman’s grand vision. One might assume that Marville incited a preservation consciousness through his photos of decaying architecture, but the fact was that Marville often purposely portrayed his subjects in a negative light – often using these photos to legitimize the Urban Renewal efforts of Baron Haussmann (and, by default, Louis Napoleon as well). One particular example is the photo below, in which Marville sprayed the streets with water prior to photographing the alleyway (in order to make the street appear infested with sewer).

A potrait of Charles Marville (left), and one of the famed works of Marville, which was intentionally "made-up" to appear as if the alleyway was infested and inundated with sewer.

A potrait of Charles Marville (left), and one of the famed works of Marville, which was intentionally "made-up" to appear as if the alleyway was infested and inundated with sewer.

One might say that the efforts of Baldus, Bayard, Le Gray, Le Secq, and Mestral were all to no avail. With their photos locked in a drawer, and a number of the buildings they photographed demolished under Napoleon III – some might see the Mission Heliographique as an exercise in futility – a project that did not carry through on its intended goal.

I’d like to see it in another light.

The days of the Commission de Monuments Historiques no longer exist. State-sponsored surveys of historic buildings are essentially a thing of the past. Though the United States instituted its own version as a result of the New Deal, known as the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) — the skimpy funding (HABS relies largely on summer interns these days) and the lack of a grand vision of documentation both ensure that HABS fails to encapsulate the artistic inspiration that the Mission Heliographique had.

In the end — ironically — what had once seemed to be an utter failure became an astounding success 100 years later. Gustave Le Gray had posthumously achieved the brass ring of photographic prowess: One of his photographs was among the list of top ten most expensive photographs sold in history when it was auctioned at the price of $838,000 in 1999.

Gustave Le Gray's "The Great Wave," recently sold for $830,000, and was listed as one of the top ten most expensive photographs of all time.

Gustave Le Gray's "The Great Wave," recently sold for $830,000, and was listed as one of the top ten most expensive photographs of all time.

I’d like to think of modern urban explorers as the “illegitimate” Le Grays and Le Secq’s of our time. Many of us skirt the law to beat the wrecking ball. I’m sure many of us hope that, some day, our work will be valued and understood in the same way that these photographs are today.

Further Research about the Mission Heliographique

All About the Mission Heliographique

Napoleon’s Use of Photography as Architectural Propoganda

More about HABS/HAER

4 comments on “Mission Heliographique – The Patrimony of Paris in Photos

  1. Andy Frazer on said:


    Nice article. And glad you included Charles Marville. I’ve been interested in Marville since I first came across his work (and his story) in “Bystander” about ten years ago. I’ve been looking for more references to his work, but it’s been very difficult. It seems he was just one notch below the popularity line, and there’s very little of his work available on the internet.

    Andy Frazer

  2. Thanks Andy. To be honest, I’d never heard of Marville until I began doing research for this piece. The entire history of Haussmannization fascinates me. I didn’t realize that the history of urban renewal goes that far into the past.

  3. Eckart on said:

    Thanks for the article! Glad to see you are back!
    Berlin, Germany

  4. Lucretia on said:

    I’ve only just now stumbled across your site and enjoyed several hours of perusing it as well as your Flickr account. I think you’re probably dead on about some people appreciating the work you do – while there will be others who will never see the reasoning. History will, in the long run, have those who look back and are thankful you and others took the time to record these images.

    25-30 years ago, I wish I’d had a camera with me on the treks I used to take with friends into edifices now long demolished in the name of progress. But unfortunately, the only images of those expeditions are in the memories of my companions and I. Thankfully, not everyone is that short-sighted.

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