On April 15 and 16, 2019, a major fire ate its way through large portions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, one of the most beautiful examples of French Gothic architecture, and a national symbol. Pictures of the blazing roof swept around the world, and it was soon evident that reconstruction efforts would take years. Tomas van Houtryve returned to the site time and again, documenting the restoration work carried out by dozens of craftsmen. In addition to drone footage and wet plate collodion images, he used his Leica SL2 to capture impressive insights from unusual perspectives. Van Houtryve spoke with us about his approach to photography, about what the construction site means to him, the special qualifications needed to work on the site, and his respect for this project of the century.
While Notre-Dame was undergoing renovation and restoration in 2019, its roof caught fire and the building was seriously damaged. The reconstruction began in 2021. How did your photographic project at the site come about?
I was contacted about the project by National Geographic in Spring 2020. They knew that I had several skills that could be relevant for this story. The most difficult part was gaining access to the cathedral. The French government created a special public entity to restore Notre-Dame Cathedral, and I was in discussions with them for five months before I finally got access. The worksite was very dangerous, so I was required to do training concerning toxic lead exposure, and about how to work at heights with ropes and harnesses. I soon gained the trust of the administrators and workers, and I was able to partner with them and gain top level access to every part of the cathedral.
What did it mean to you to see the building on fire? Were you there when the fire was burning?
I was in my home in Paris when Notre-Dame started burning; but I first learned about it through a text message from a friend on the other side of the world. The initial images of the burning cathedral spread through the international media even faster than the fire spread through the roof! I have a dear friend who lives right next to Notre-Dame, so my initial worry was about him. Once I learned he was safe, my thoughts turned to the building, and I was struck by the same emotions as so many other Parisians: horror and disbelief. Notre-Dame is the epicentre of French history. It is the most famous Gothic cathedral in France. It is the subject of Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel. It is where Napoleon crowned himself. It was marked by the French Revolution and the liberation of Paris after WWII. Few places on earth are the vessel of so many layers of history.
Did you do a lot of research on Notre-Dame in order to know where to move on site?
Yes, I read as much as I could about the architecture and about the extensive 19th century restoration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. I also re-read Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and bought books on the earliest photographs of the cathedral. I decided that I had two aims in photographing the cathedral: documenting this historical moment, and using it as a place of inspiration.
What Leica camera did you use for the project?
Most of the time I used an SL2 and the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 f/2.8-4 ASPH. This was actually an unusual setup for me. I am more used to using a small M camera with a 35mm lens.
What were the greatest challenges while working on site?
The main constraint when working inside Notre-Dame is the lead contamination. The roof was made of lead, and when it burnt it sent toxic smoke and dust particles everywhere. Each time I entered the site I was required to remove my street cloths and put on a disposable, chemical-resistant HazMat suit. Each time I left the site I was required to remove the HazMat suit and take a shower. In some areas of high emissions at the cathedral, I had to wear a motor-assisted respirator mask while I worked, and had to rinse off my cameras before leaving the site. In these situations, the SL2 and a single zoom lens was the best option. I didn’t have to risk lead particles contaminating the sensor by changing lenses, and the IP54 weather sealing protected the camera from dust and water. There were other times that lead contamination wasn’t an issue, and I could use other lenses, including a Summilux-M 35 f/1.4, a PC Super Angulon-R 28 f/2.8 and a Summilux-M 75 f/1.4.
What are the most significant things you’ve observed at Notre-Dame?
I asked a crane operator to position me and my camera at exactly the place where the spire used to be before the fire. I pointed my camera straight down into the middle of the hole. The dark debris from the fire can be seen on the foreground of the frame and a gentle light shining through nets from the altar can be seen below. It was a very powerful moment to be in the vertex of this historic place and peer straight into the wounded building.
You are well-known for your interplay of light and shadow. What kind of stylistic elements do you like; and which did you use for this series and why? What was your focus?
I tried to be very observant and inspired by the architects of Notre-Dame. I would let my eyes follow a line or a beam of light and the rest was just intuition.
What do you intend to achieve with this project? What message would you like to get across?
I can’t think of any projects today where the builders start something knowing that it will only be finished several generations later. The idea of multi-generational construction that is later restored and cherished over time is very moving to me. There is not just the history of workers at the site, but also painters and photographers. I was very conscious of adding to a long line of people who have celebrated and born witness to the cathedral.
The Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve was born in California in 1975 and studied Philosophy, Photojournalism and Photography at the University of Colorado. He was a Leica Oskar Barnack Award Finalist 2011 with his series Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, which appeared as a book in 2012. In 2014, van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days series was published in Harper’s as the largest photo portfolio in the magazine’s 164-year history. In 2019 he was again Leica Oskar Barnack Award finalist, featuring his series Lines and Lineage.
His projects have gained significant attention among cultural institutions and the press, and are widely exhibited, including at C/O Berlin (2021), Baudoin Lebon Gallery, Paris (2019), International Center for Photography Museum, New York (2017), Museum für Fotografie, Berlin (2017), Galerija Vartai, Vilnius (2017), Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, and Fotografisk Center, Copenhagen (2016). He is an Emeritus Member of the VII Agency. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.