Henri Le Secq (1818–82) doesn’t feature in concise histories of photography because he wasn’t a game-changing artist. Possibly his best-known photograph is that of men (and one woman?) in a public baths in Paris:
It is monumental, informal, theatrical, narrative, and plays on binaries (light, no light; dress, undress; above, below; stillness, movement). This is not ‘typical’ Le Secq; he very rarely includes human figures. It’s a wonderful photograph, but it’s not the one that haunts me.
Le Secq was one of five photographers commissioned (by Prosper Mérimée) to compile a documentary record of French architecture; Le Secq covered the north and east. His churches and ecclesiastical statuary are dull (rightly so; it wasn’t part of his commission to be anything more). His bridges hold me for longer, the water beneath them as solid as the stone of the arches. Also dutiful, but to today’s eye moving out from the mere documentary, are his photographs of Paris buildings in the process of demolition in the early 1850s, making way for expansion and modernisation: their ruination – exposed chimneys, gaps, piles of rubble – appears as a form of deliberate architecture, the buildings and their destruction in complete harmony.
He moves out of the city. This:
Three massive waves tumbling forward: the bleak escarpments of quarries on the north-eastern outskirts of Paris; the buildings of the city are relegated to the upper left corner, in a dusty haze. This unregulated edge-land, neither urban nor rural, turns up often in literature and films, and maybe dreams too. Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry follows a man driving around all day in a very similar landscape (outside Tehran), asking people to bury him. He’s going to take a stack of pills and lie down in a hole beside a tree, and he needs someone to come at dawn and call his name and fill in the hole if he doesn’t reply. He is offering good money for just twenty spadefuls of earth, but the labourer threatens to smash his face in. The soldier runs away. The theology student listens but is bound to refuse. The Turkish man who works as a taxidermist agrees, but not before he has told the story of how he once climbed a tree with a rope to hang himself but the mulberries were in season and they tasted delicious.
For several centuries on the site photographed by Le Secq there was a gibbet on which the bodies of executed criminals were placed on public view. After 1760 the site became a dump for refuse and sewage, and a place for butchering horses. Limestone and gypsum from the quarries were exported to America. In the 1860s, after the 19th arrondissement was annexed to Paris, the area was transformed (gentrified) into a public park with terraces, a lake and a mock-Roman temple. Then they started making postcards.
Le Secq moved out further. Photographing trees, he’s interested in tangles and knots and limbs at odd angles; and just as he was drawn to buildings in the process of demolition, so too in his studies of terrain he looked to muddle and obstruction, disarray, things coming loose. This – below – is the one that haunts me. Below a cropped-off row of spindly trees, the champ des Cosaques in the forest of Montmirail has suffered flooding or subsidence: beneath a gash in its smooth, taut surface, the land has excavated itself, exposing a jumble of roots, soil and stone. I think this is what memory is: a hollowing out, a collapse. It’s not pretty.