From its beginnings as a medieval fortress protecting the Franks from the Vikings, to being the residence of the King before becoming the largest museum in the world, the Louvre has had a fanciful history with many ups and down.
A significant up (or down depending on your historical view) was when King Louis XIV decided the Louvre was nothing more than a proverbial dump and relocated his residence to the Palace of Versailles. I mean, who could be expected to live in such squalor. He left the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection. Almost one hundred years later the French Revolution took power and decreed that the Louvre would host a museum displaying national masterpieces for all French to enjoy. The museum of the Louvre was created.
From then until now, the Louvre has collected artwork from pre-history until the 20th century. Hosting not only the famous Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo but works that encapsulate all of the Western civilisation. With a foundation of Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek antiquities, its collection spans through the European Middle Ages to the mid 19th century (where the Musée d'Orsay takes over). With over 35,000 pieces, it is the largest museum in the world, and undoubtedly one of the most significant buildings in France. With such an iconic building in front of you, it can be a daunting task to photograph. So, where does one start?
When most people think of the Louvre, it is synonymous with the Pyramid in the Cour Napoleon, although, of its 9,000-year history, the Pyramid has existed for only the last 29 years. It was the brainchild of Socialist French President Françoise Mitterrand and contains near on 800 glass lozenges supported by a 95-ton structure. Decisive when it was created, it has become largely accepted and appreciated by the French. It looks especially beautiful at night when it is lit up.
When the fountains are working and the pools are filled there are some beautiful reflections to be had. Dragging out a long exposure on twilight will produce some beautiful results.
Throughout all of my years shooting the Louvre, I've only ever seen the window polishing machine once. I love that little guy. It looks like a spider climbing up his large metal web.
When shooting the pyramid, one must take into account distance perspective. The closer you are to the Pyramid, the flatter and pancake like the peak will look. The further away you are, the more triangular the peaks will become. This will give the Pyramid a natural perspective within its surroundings.
While our gaze is fixated on the Pyramid in Cour Napoleon, it casts a shadow on the oft forgotten beauty of the Carré Cour. The completely enclosed courtyard is filled with spectacular detail and great history. The Lescot wing for example, on the southern part of the western wing of the Carré Cour, is the oldest remaining facade of the Louvre. Make sure you take some time to appreciate the statues, they are a lot closer to the ground, so it is possible to shoot them up close.
You will find a lot of letters across the Louvre, embossed on lampposts, etched into doors or carved into stone above windows. These visual symbols of power are initials of the mighty who once ruled Paris. The L might be for Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, Louis-Philippe or maybe Louie-Napoleon. So many Louis left their mark on the Louvre! N could be for Napoleon III, H for Henri II, Henri IV or Henri de Bourbon, SL for Saint Louis, R and RF represent the French Republic and the list just goes on and on. How many initials can you spot?
The Louvre is filled with corridors and arches which create the perfect frame for almost anything. From the Pyramid to the Institut de France across the Pont des Arts, the opportunities are boundless. The beauty of the frame in this instance is the creation of another world contained within their confines, like a snow globe, a gateway to a fairytale.
Try to make sure you keep your aperture closed for these kinds of shots. Because passages are often darker, one tries to compensate by opening up the aperture, but this results in a shallow depth of field. By keeping your aperture relatively closed you willmake sure your arch as well as your background will both be in focus.
Exterior Facades of the Louvre
The external facades of the Louvre are as precious at their contents. None of them more so than the Eastern wing of the Louvre which is one of the most influential classical facades ever built in Europe. Its grand scale makes it hard to photograph in one shot. I used an 8mm lens below to get the entire facade in one shot, but the quality loss at the edges shows. Therefore I think it is better to pick out details or work with other techniques, like the repetition of the columns and the texture of the stone to amplify the subject in the photograph.
Periodically the the Louvre engages modern artists in installing temporary works of art within the grounds of the museum. The three-looped infinity symbol was made by Michelangelo Pistoletto in 2013. During 2014-15 Claude Lévêque hung a giant lightning bolt in the centre of the pyramid. In 2016 Eva Jospin’s Panorama invited people to experience 18th-century panorama boxes.
When shooting temporary exhibitions I am trying to play with the artist's theme in a way that highlights and supports their work. For example, the artist JR made the pyramid "disappear" in 2016 but putting a paste-up of the Louve onto the pyramid that could only be viewed when the perspective was lined up correctly. To give it justice I shot it twice, once from and angle to show how most people would naturally approach it, and then again lined up to highlight the visual disappearing trick.
There currently aren't any temporary displays on the exterior of the Louvre... but it won't stay naked for long.
Porte des Lions
There are a couple of entrances to the Louvre, and not all of them are busy as the others. If you wish to explore the Louvre Museum I recommend you enter via the Porte des Lions, otherwise known as the Lions Gate. This entrance on the south western wing between the Quai François Mitterrand and the Jardin du Carrousel is flanked by Lions. Males on the Quai side, and females on the Jardin side. It rarely has a queue, and if it does, it is much shorter than the Pyramid entrance.
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
Lesser known than its bigger brother, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel isn't a copy of the larger Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile at the top of the Champs-Élysées, but rather its complement. They were both designed at the same time and construction began simultaneously. The Arc at Carrousel would only take two years to complete, unlike the ten years needed at l'Étoile.
The Louvre is a captivating building with a rich history. A symbol of the absolute monarchy that preceded modern France contrasted to the ideals of the republic : a museum of culture open to all people. It is synonymous with France and Paris and remarkable during any time of day, in any season. If you would like to learn how to shoot the Louvre and understand your camera, join a tour of the Louvre and surrounds in a Paris Photo Tour with Aperture Tours.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours (formally Paris Photography Tours) and heads up the tours in Paris. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.