Throughout the 19th century, the body politic in France was marred by tumult. Starting with the revolution of 1830, there had been anti-clerical riots in 1831, barricades in 1832 and 1834, and two revolutions in 1848. Between 1827 and 1849, Paris saw barricade action eight times, and it all culminated in the Paris Commune of 1871 — the bloodiest since the 1789 Revolution. Historians still differ on motives and legacies of the Communards, but their revolt was directly prompted by France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and disenchantment with the royalist and conservative elite they held responsible for perceived social, economic and military failures.
The Communards declared Paris independent and set about establishing their own institutions. Weeks of fighting followed, including the semaine sanglante of 21-28 May 1871. The Bonapartist victory column at the Place Vendôme was pulled down. The Louvre and the Versailles were attacked, and as it was in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame, the cathedral was surrounded and nearly burnt down; the Archbishop of Paris was murdered, along with several judges and politicians. The Palais des Tuileries, the Palais Royal, the Palais d’Orsay, the Palais de Justice, and the Hôtel de Ville were all set on fire, although not – as it was claimed hysterically at the time – by bands of female communards known as pétroleuses who walked around throwing bottles full of petroleum into bourgeoisie homes and businesses.
The revolt was eventually put down brutally by the military. Soon afterwards appeared a series of nine photographs entitled, “Crimes of the Commune” which depicted firing squads, murders and other excesses of the Communard revolutionaries. Although they were based on real events, the photos were fabrications — one of the earliest photo manipulations, not by the government but by a royalist zealot. Eugene Appert, a failed painter, ardently attended the trials of the Communards and took their portraits. Then, he hired actors to recreate firing squads, pasting the faces from the trial photos onto the restaged tableaux. Appert’s photos were so effective as political propaganda that even the embarrassed government had to ban them for they were “disturbing the public peace” by sustaining anti-Communard sentiments.
The government was less coy about other means of using photography to stamp out the Communards; the police pored over the photographs of Bruno Braquehais (who documented the Commune as it unfolded) to identify and arrest of agitators. Appert and Braquehais were just two of many photographers who made their name during the Commune, in those early heady days of photography. Their names and works are long forgotten now, but both photographers and governments still use photographic techniques and possibilities first revealed during the Commune in 1871.