The absurd life of Félix Nadar, French portraitist and human flight advocate
Newly translated into English, Nadar’s writings offer us the opportunity to revisit a bizarre and compelling character who took portraits of the Parisian cultural elite
Wednesday 23 December 2015 09.00 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 2 May 2017 19.08 BST
Nothing about Nadar was ever straightforward, as the photograph on the cover of When I Was a Photographer reveals. There he is, a dapper daredevil in his top hat and floppy cravat, in the basket of a gas balloon, floating high among the clouds, binoculars at the ready, ballast and grapnel hook within easy reach. He’s scanning the horizon, coolly indulging one of his ardent enthusiasms: human flight.
But the photograph is a fake: it was staged in his plush studio on the top floor of 35, Boulevard des Capucines, in the heart of fashionable Paris. The clouds are a painted backdrop, the basket dangles in perfect safety a couple of feet above the floor of the studio. Even that intent gaze is a con: Nadar, who was myopic, could see into the distance only with his specs on.
He was 80 when he published Quand j’étais photographe, now translated for the first time into English and recently published by MIT Press. The book presents a fresh opportunity to consider a bizarre and compelling character whose genius blossomed in mid-19th-century Paris just as Baron Haussmann, under orders from Emperor Napoleon III, was radically reshaping and modernising the French capital by tearing down medieval neighborhoods and laying out broad, tree-lined boulevards.
Half a century before he published When I Was a Photographer, Nadar was already a notorious Paris bohemian and a celebrated caricaturist. Then, in his mid-30s, he abruptly emerged as the world’s first great portrait photographer. He made it his mission to create individual portraits of the entire Parisian cultural elite, from Alexandre Dumas to Honoré Daumier, from Sarah Bernhardt to Hector Berlioz, each one a penetrating likeness that captured what he called the “moral intelligence” of the sitter and demanded to be appreciated as a work of art.
In the age of the selfie, Nadar reminds us of the brave beginnings of a medium that changed the world. A pioneer photographer with any ambition needed to be part scientist (Nadar liked to call the darkroom his laboratory), part artist, part salesman – and yet a whiff of the mountebank clung to the nascent profession.
Though Nadar believed fervently in the artistic value of photography, he also understood that photographs and publicity work hand in hand. The self-portrait-as-balloonist, probably taken in 1864, was a carefully thought out exercise in self-promotion, essentially a publicity shot designed to sell two publications: a memoir and a manifesto.
The memoir was a breathless account of his disastrous flight in a humongous gas balloon he christened Le Géant. He had built it with the express purpose of proving the futility of attempting to navigate in balloons – Nadar believed the future of flight would be in “aero-locomotives”, an idea which baffled his contemporaries. He demonstrated the perils of ballooning with his epic second ascent in Le Géant: it ended with a crash-landing that dragged on for half an hour, as the balloon bounced perilously through a rural landscape, nearly killing everyone aboard. The catastrophe made headlines from Paris to New York.
The manifesto, called Le Droit au Vol (The Right to Flight), is a polemic in favour of “heavier-than-air” aerial navigation – and against the helplessness of balloons wafted here and there by the wind. “When he wants to,” Nadar writes, “man will fly like a bird, better than a bird – because … it is certain that man will be obliged to fly better than a bird in order to fly just as well.” He sent the manuscript to his friend Victor Hugo, who replied in an open letter – modestly addressed “To the Whole World” – in which he hailed Nadar as a prophet and a hero. Nadar evidently agreed; witness the pose he struck in the faux-ballooning photo: Prophetic Hero Aloft.
One of the more amusing chapters in When I Was a Photographer tells the story of how, when Paris was besieged by the Prussians in 1870, Nadar established the world’s first airmail service, organising a fleet of balloons to float sacks of correspondence over enemy lines. There was one problem with the scheme: the mail could get out (as long as the balloon landed beyond the reach of the Prussian forces), but because balloons can’t be steered, return mail couldn’t be sent back in.
The ingenious solution, proposed to Nadar by an anonymous citizen, was photographic – or, to be precise, micrographic. The return correspondence was photographed on microfilm and the tiny negative strapped to a carrier pigeon’s leg. Once safely in Paris, the microfilm was enlarged, the precious letters distributed. “Our Paris, strangled by its anxiety over its absent ones,” Nadar writes, “finally breathed.”
Who was this curious creature? Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in Paris in 1820 (Nadar was a nickname that became a pseudonym), he was a promising but erratic student. His father, a publisher and bookseller, went bust when Nadar was 13 and died four years later. From the age of 16, Nadar was essentially on his own; instead of family, he had friends, a network of bohemians who lived in garrets, assembled in cafes, and wrote or painted – or at least aspired to write or paint.
Nadar wanted to write and called himself a man of letters. But in fact he was a hack journalist and a mediocre novelist. He drew with greater success, and by the time he was 30 was better known as a caricaturist than a writer. He spent a great deal of time and energy satirizing the political aspirations of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, but no amount of ridicule could slow the rise of Louis-Napoléon, and when he proclaimed himself emperor in 1852 he dispensed with the liberal pieties of the Republic and muzzled the press. Political caricature, which time and again had swayed French public opinion, was expressly banned.
Nadar took refuge in the cultural life of the capital. He launched an epic project (he liked to think big): a series of four outsized lithographs depicting 1,200 luminaries, with a separate sheet devoted to writers, playwrights and actors, artists and musicians. He only ever got around to a first sheet, showing the writers and journalists, but the 250 caricatures in the Panthéon-Nadar secured his fame. A financial flop (only 136 copies of the lithograph were sold), it was a critical triumph – “The Panthéon-Nadar will be the joy of every museum, of every intelligent salon” – and made Nadar a household name in Paris.
Ambitious and chronically restless (his friend and fellow bohemian Baudelaire exclaimed: “Nadar, the most astonishing expression of vitality”), he veered off in a new direction as soon as the lithograph was published. Having paid for his feckless younger brother to apprentice with a professional photographer, he helped set him up with his own studio – and in the process caught the bug.
“Photography is a marvelous discovery,” he wrote a couple of years after his debut in 1855, “a science that engages the most elevated intellects, an art that sharpens the wits of the wisest souls – and the practical application of which lies within the capacity of the shallowest imbecile.”
What set his own work apart, in his estimation, was his feel for light and the connection he made with the sitter. The early camera was a bulky box perched on four rickety legs. When the photographer ducked under a black cloth to peer through the lens, the contraption looked like a giant caped spider staring with a single dark eye. Nadar relied on the flow of his famously charming banter to trick the sitter into ignoring this unnerving instrument.
An early portrait of Théophile Gautier shows his friend unbuttoned in every respect, dressed in an exotic-looking robe over a pale shirt left open at the neck. Gautier also sports a loosely knotted, flamboyantly striped scarf; one hand is buried to the wrist down the front of his trousers, an insolent gesture just shy of obscene. He could only be a bohemian, a wild and unconventional artist, the sort who would espouse art for art’s sake (in fact, Gautier coined the phrase). Under a prominent brow and a broad, brightly lit forehead, the eyes, baggy and shaded, gaze off into the distance. It’s not that he’s unaware of the camera; he’s snubbing it.
Nadar had a nickname for his friend Théophile: le Théos, as in the Greek for god. Already celebrated as a poet, novelist, critic, playwright and travel writer, Gautier was not yet, at the time of the photograph, at the peak of his fame. But his pose suggests that he saw no reason to question himself or to doubt that he’d enjoy the approving judgment of posterity.
Gautier was one of hundreds of writers, artists and musicians who posed for Nadar. Their names, however, are not dropped in When I Was a Photographer. The book is a grab-bag of unrelated pieces, some of them only tenuously connected to photography. There are gems, flashes of charm and brilliance, and also long stretches that will puzzle today’s reader. Nadar wrote for his crowd, a plugged-in elite. He never stops to explain himself to the uninitiated.
The most engrossing (and ghoulish) of the chapters, Homicidal Photography, is about a notorious murder case of 1882: a pharmacist who killed his wife’s lover with the help of his wife and brother. Nadar doesn’t identify the perpetrators until the very end, and only indirectly, by giving the name of the pharmacy.
Who killed whom isn’t the issue, as far as Nadar is concerned. For him, the point of the story is the power of a single photograph to shape public opinion. The victim’s corpse, fished from the Seine where it was dumped, was photographed by the police, and the grotesque image inflamed the passions of the crowd. “The whole mob set to barking,” Nadar writes, “howling on this trail of blood.”
None of the other chapters is as dramatic; many are mere anecdotes illustrating the newness of photography and the incomprehension with which it was greeted. Written near the end of his life, When I Was a Photographer is more of a postscript than an introduction. Digressive, allusive, at times almost evasive, it gives the flavour of Nadar as a writer, but not much in the way of practical information.
The bare-bones chronology at the back of the English translation was lifted from the excellent, fact-filled catalogue (now, sadly, out of print, but sometimes available in good used book stores) of the glorious mid-1990s exhibition of Nadar’s work at the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That catalogue remains the best way to get to know the enchanting and maddening Nadar.
Another way is to look closely at his photographs. He had future generations in mind when assembling his portrait gallery of eminent contemporaries; he wanted to present posterity with a “convincing and sympathetic likeness” of the people he admired. Roland Barthes (who thought Nadar was the world’s greatest photographer) confessed that his own fascination with photography was “tinged with necrophilia … a fascination with what has died but is represented as wanting to be alive”.
We can’t really know someone by peering at a photograph taken 150 years ago (the same is true of a selfie taken 15 minutes ago). Yet the magic of Nadar’s portraits – their sincerity, their freshness, the unwavering faith they demonstrate in the possibility of capturing a piercingly accurate psychological likeness – tempts us to forget our scepticism, to look past the sepia tint, the old style hats and coats, and our doubts about the veracity of photographic images. We’re tempted, when we first see them, to trust the spark of recognition, that instant when we come face to face with a fellow being who’s alive and knowable.