By Tom Rainbow
As I write this, a live stream of flames engulfing Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral is playing on my phone. Though the extent of the damage is yet to be determined or reported, it is clear that this event will long remain in the city’s conscience. Long a symbol of Paris’ rich cultural history, the spire and bell-towers of the Cathedral are embedded into the literary, artistic and photographic skyline of the city.
Long a symbol of Paris’ rich cultural history, the spire and bell-towers of the cathedral are embedded into the literary, artistic and photographic skyline of the city.
Like many readers, I have fond memories of visiting and appreciating the Cathedral’s looming presence. I remember being made to feel minuscule by the cathedral’s facade, as it seems to bend up into the sky and over your head. I remember listening to an organ recital that seemed to shake the building to its foundations – little wonder it has entranced worshippers for eight hundred years. I remember drinking cider by the Seine, with its regular congregation of students, couples, and ‘sans-abri’, as the dark silhouette of the spire watched protectively. However, it is difficult to forget the chaos and claustrophobia that sits around the structure on most days – the mass of tourists like myself, armed with our cameras and backpacks.
It struck me as poignant that, at around 7pm on the 15th April, the very last photos of the cathedral’s spire were taken. Moreover, it is striking that onlookers and newsfeed followers alike reacted to the devastation with the disbelief normally seen in the wake of high-profile deaths, or natural disasters. Theresa May has tweeted that her ‘thoughts are with the people of France’, yet there are no reported casualties in the blaze. Instead, it is testament to the way in which the structures and spaces we inhabit effectively become a part of our identity.
‘It is striking that onlookers and newsfeed followers alike reacted to the devastation with the disbelief normally seen in the wake of high-profile deaths, or natural disasters’
Perhaps we should turn to one of Paris’ most famous thinkers, Roland Barthes, to understand the delicate connection between image and memory. In his late work Camera Lucida, Barthes dissects our use of photography as a means of emotional preservation. He makes a distinction between the so-called ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of the photograph. The former represents the contextually specific content of a picture – embodied in the way we take photos to be safely stored in a box in the loft somewhere. It is the ‘polite interest’ and nodding approval of family and friends as they flick through dusty photo albums. The ‘punctum’, however, gives a photograph its peculiar poignancy – perhaps the forgotten smile of a loved one or a scene that triggers childhood memories. Barthes argues that the ‘punctum’ functions as a kind of memento mori, offering a powerful and at times overwhelming reminder of our own mortality. The essence of photography, he bluntly states, is that which ‘has been.’
Tonight, I wonder if photo albums across the world are being dusted off and viewed in a very different light, like a departed friend.
A photograph offers a tantalising yet unattainable view of the past. Our desire to glimpse what has been also means that we must confront what is no more. Tonight, I wonder if photo albums across the world are being dusted off and viewed in a very different light, like a departed friend. The tragic fire that still rages in Paris is what Barthes called an accident that ‘bruises me, is poignant to me’. The endless tweets that are being typed and tapped away may seem ludicrous for a mere object: a collection of wood and stone. However, we ought to remember that the Notre-Dame is a very human part of people’s lives. Its collapse offers a fiery reminder that nothing in life is reliable, permanent, fixed. A small consolation, then, may be that Paris has always found romance in its tragedies. Tonight’s rubble ought to be no exception.
Photograph by Tom Rainbow