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Not Human (excerpt), by Brandon Latu


[Lyons During the Floods of 1856]

Édouard Baldus (French, born Prussia, 1813–1889)

June 1856
Salted paper prints from paper negative
Overall: 31.2 x 85.9 cm (12 5/16 x 33 13/16 in. )
Credit Line:
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005
Accession Number:
2005.100.613a, b
  • Description

    Torrential rains in mid- to late May 1856 caused rivers to swell and low-lying areas to flood throughout France. Nowhere was the devastation greater than in the Saône and Rhône valleys, where the flood waters peaked at nearly eight meters above normal and destroyed whole sections of Lyons, Avignon, Tarascon, and many smaller towns. So great was the destruction that Napoleon III and several of his ministers visited the flooded areas, touring the most heavily damaged sections of Lyons on June 3.
    Four days later Edouard-Denis Baldus arrived in Lyons, dispatched by the government to photograph the catastrophic consequences of the floods. Baldus knew the Rhône valley well, having recorded its Roman and medieval monuments on his "mission héliographique" of 1851, and later for his own stock of architectural views. But on this occasion the character of the region was transformed, and the twenty-five negatives that Baldus produced in eight days of work speak of the force of nature rather than the ingenuity of man.
    By the time Baldus arrived the river had largely returned to its banks, leaving him to record not the torrent itself but rather the ruinous shells of buildings and the eerily serene landscape of the postdiluvian city. This two-part panorama shows the hard-hit Brotteaux section of Lyons. Remaining true to his preferred subjects of landscape and architecture, Baldus was able to create a moving record of this natural disaster without depicting the human suffering left in its wake, as if the devastation had been of biblical proportions, leaving behind only remnants of a destroyed civilization. Sensing the dual nature of these pictures as both gripping historical documents and aestheticized pictures, the critic Ernest Lacan described his feelings as he examined the photographs of streets transformed into streams, houses overturned, and fields ravaged, all represented "with an exactitude unfortunately too eloquent." "They are very sad pictures," he concluded, "but beautiful too in their sadness."

  • Provenance

    [Galerie Alain Paviot, and Robert Hershkowitz, Paris]; Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York, July 17, 1989

  • See also