Originally published on London Review of Books
by Emilie Bickerton
‘Like the knives of Chinese jugglers’, Charles Bataille said of his friend Félix Nadar, ‘turbulent, unexpected, terrifying’. Adam Begley’s biography describes a life lived so frenetically, it’s surprising it lasted so long – Nadar died at the age of ninety, in 1910. Yet he is remembered today primarily for the stillness and serenity of his photographic portraits of 19th-century Parisian luminaries. ‘You’ve done better than I’ve ever done,’ the physician Philippe Ricord wrote in the livre d’or, an autograph book Nadar kept for clients to sign in his studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines, ‘for I’ve always found it impossible to resemble myself from one day to the next.’ This is what Nadar was interested in, the search for what he called ‘an intimate resemblance’ – an instant not merely captured, but in a way that caught something essential in his subjects.
A few pictures have come to represent Nadar’s work: Charles Baudelaire, undated, but probably between 1855 and 1862, standing in his elegant dark coat, half-unbuttoned waistcoat and bow tie, hands in pockets, staring back at the camera – defiant perhaps, but with the mouth and the eyes, which Nadar called ‘two drops of coffee’, betraying some vulnerability. Victor Hugo, side-on, avuncular, or on his deathbed; a glacial Eugène Delacroix; the incredibly joyless Goncourt brothers; a series of portraits of George Sand, who went to Nadar in desperation after a competitor had captured with great vividness her drooping mouth and double chin. The image was ‘making everyone scream’, Sand wrote to Nadar. He went on to take many photographs of her, which often show her quiet grandeur.
Then there is Ernestine, Nadar’s wife, in a photograph Begley reproduces twice in his book because he finds it so moving, and which Roland Barthes described as ‘one of the loveliest photographs in the world’. Nadar also took a photograph of her 35 years earlier, shortly after they were married, in which she sits back, arms folded protectively, eyes fixed on the camera, sceptical and defensive. In the later image, from around 1890, Ernestine’s now lined face and white hair are framed by a thick velvet blanket. Her look is tender; she holds a few violets, which rest on her lips.
Nadar’s particular contribution to the development of photography was his exploitation of the new wet collodion process, invented in 1851 following the breakthroughs of Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. The daguerreotype was an image printed directly onto a glass plate; Talbot’s calotype was a translucent negative image from which positive images could be reproduced. The drawback of the calotype was its lack of sensitivity, which resulted in softer images – not so good for portraits. The wet collodion process produced a negative image on glass, combining the precision of the daguerreotype with the reproducibility of the calotype.
Yet for all Nadar’s gifts with the camera, his interests constantly flitted elsewhere. He was, in the words of his friend Jules Verne, ‘enamoured of the impossible’. His career in portrait photography lasted a relatively short time, most of it packed into the 1850s and 1860s. Alongside it, he achieved a series of historical firsts, with and without the camera: the first person to take photographs from the air, carried aloft in a hot-air balloon; the first to take photographs successfully in the absence of natural light, in a series of extraordinary images from the Paris catacombs and sewers; and the first to transport mail by air, again using hot-air balloons, during the Prussian War and the siege of Paris.
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon was born on 6 April 1820 in Paris. His father was a book publisher but in the 1830s he went bankrupt – the Dictionnaire universel de droit français ruined him – and the family decamped to Lyon. Félix pursued his studies, not very seriously, and then enrolled in medical school, but his time there was cut short by his father’s sudden death in 1837. He became the family breadwinner, with responsibility for his mother and his younger brother, Adrien. He returned to Paris and found work as a journalist before gravitating to sketching caricatures for the popular press (it was around this time that he started to use the nom de plume Nadar). He made friends easily and drew the people he met. The Journal pour rire and other such newspapers took his work. But he was never a great draughtsman, and was left behind when the caricaturist’s art was elevated by the likes of Gustave Doré and Honoré Daumier.
Nadar abandoned caricatures soon after he discovered the camera, but not before making one original contribution to the field: the ‘Panthéon Nadar’, which brought together 250 sketches on a single page, 114 by 81 centimetres in size, as a compendium of Paris high society – artistic, scientific and political. A scowling Victor Hugo, with an enormous balding head, leads the pack at the bottom left. Next to him is a bust of George Sand, regal in white alabaster, and at her feet another, of Balzac, almost black but with his frown clearly visible. A dejected-looking Baudelaire hangs back in the shadows. A spidery-legged Nadar – he had especially long, skinny legs – sits casually in the middle. The pantheon was first published in 1854; a revised version came out four years later. It was displayed in shop windows, and crowds gathered to look at it, but it was bought only by collectors – just 136 copies were sold.
Nadar moved to photography partly because he was short of money, but it was also a logical artistic progression. His aim in making the pantheon, he explained in When I Was a Photographer, a collection of essays published ten years before his death and translated into English by Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou in 2015, was ‘to transfigure those hundreds of different faces into comicalities, while preserving for each the imponderable physical resemblance of the features, the personal bearing – and the character, that is, the moral and intellectual resemblance’. But he expresses frustration, too, with the ‘clumsy, boorish pencil’ that could not translate ‘the delicateness, the exquisite finesse’ of some of his subjects:
How to infer the individuality, so personal, and the strangeness, so ingeniously and perfectly sincere, of that complicated man Baudelaire … ? Photography, which was just being born, offered, at least to my lack of ability, the virtue of not exhausting the good will of my models for too long, even as it opened paths of which I had hitherto been unaware.
Nadar pushed his younger brother Adrien to open a photography studio, which he did in 1854, but the business didn’t prosper. Nadar stepped in to help, learned the trade, and promptly opened a studio of his own in his home on rue Saint-Lazare. A bitter rivalry began between the brothers that would rumble on for years. Nadar was the gifted one, both at taking photographs and at generating publicity. His own business took off, and although he was notoriously careless with money – he made it and spent it in quantities – Ernestine’s bookkeeping kept them afloat. But Félix couldn’t forgive his brother’s use of the name Nadar, which he’d first used as a journalist in the 1830s, and was now the iconic red signature on his photographs. Adrien, a poor photographer by comparison, signed his images the same way, and put ‘Nadar’ on his shopfront. Adrien flooding the market with sub-Nadars was unacceptable to Félix, who took his brother to court and won; the ruling confirmed that he was ‘the only, the true Nadar’.
The 1850s and 1860s, when Nadar produced his masterworks, were the decades of ‘photomania’. In 1861, he moved the business into the more lavish setting of the boulevard des Capucines, a few steps from the Opéra. It was the most extravagant photographic studio in Paris. In the lobby Nadar displayed some of his portraits; at the top, in the workspace, there was an indoor waterfall; the rooms were filled with his expanding art collection, including Gobelins tapestries and Chinese porcelain. Yet, despite his success, Nadar became restless. It was ‘easy to turn out handsome polished portraits likely to appeal to the crowds’, Begley writes, but ‘for the most part they were conventional images lacking the edge and daring and enigmatic beauty of his early work.’ He began to delegate the work; other passions had taken hold.
Nadar had always been fascinated with hot-air ballooning; as a boy he had watched as a balloon nearly came to grief above the Champs-Élysées. In the 1850s he began flying them himself. He wrote about the experience in When I Was a Photographer:
Free, calm, levitating into the silent immensity of welcoming and beneficent space, where no human power, no force of evil, can reach him, man seems to feel himself really living for the first time, enjoying, in a plenitude until then unknown to him, the wholeness of his health in his soul and body. Finally he breathes, free from all the ties with this humanity which ends up disappearing in front of his eyes, so small even in its greatest achievements – the works of giants, the labours of ants – and in the struggles and the murderous strife of its stupid antagonism. Like the lapse of times past, the altitude that takes him away reduces all things to their relative proportions, to Truth. In this superhuman serenity, the spasm of ineffable transport liberates the soul from matter, which forgets itself, as if it no longer existed, vaporises itself into the purest essence. Everything is far away: cares, remorse, disgust. How easily indifference, contempt, forgetfulness drop away from on high – and forgiveness descends.
Adding to the pleasure was the map-like view of the world afforded by balloon flight. A ‘planisphere’, Nadar called it: ‘Everything is in focus.’ Here he could still feel the photographer’s impulse:
what purity of lines, what extraordinary clarity of sight in the smallness of this microcosm where everything appears to us with the exquisite impression of a marvellous, ravishing cleanliness! I found neither slag nor stain. Nothing but distance to escape all ugliness … The invitation to the lens was in this case more than formal, imperative, and, so intense that our absorption was pushed to the vagueness of a dream, in truth it would have been necessary never to have even half-opened the door of a laboratory so that we wouldn’t have been immediately taken by the thought of photographing these marvels.
Nadar wanted to be the first to take photographs from the sky. He used his usual wet collodion process, preparing and developing his images while still aloft. He made a number of failed attempts before realising that the gas from the balloon was interfering with the photochemistry of the process. He protected the plates from the gas and returned to earth victorious, the first aerial photographs in hand, in 1858. The feat caught the attention of Etienne-Jules Marey, who was toiling over his own greatest invention, chronophotography, aimed primarily at capturing animal and human motion – a precursor to the work of Muybridge.
Marey lived in an apartment by the Palais Royal which he shared with his mother. Nadar recounts a visit to see him in When I Was a Photographer. He climbed to the top floor and entered a sunlit attic. ‘Laboratory yes, but also a menagerie, in impeccable order, among every sort of scientific apparatus and instrument were cages and aquaria, and the creatures to populate them: pigeons, buzzards, fish, lizards, snakes … A frog escaped from its jar, a tortoise progressed without haste … Under a wire mesh grille, yellow-collared grass snakes stretched.’ Graphs were pinned to the walls: evidence of Marey’s researches into animal movement. His aim was, as he put it in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1869, ‘to go in search of the laws of life, understand the laws of movement, of the organs, to make it possible to fight more effectively against disease and death’. Young assistants buzzed around, their faces ‘illuminated by their inquisitive and noble passion’, and in the middle of it all was the man Nadar described as the ‘wonderful silent conductor of this orchestra, the beloved MASTER’. Standing amid the evidence of such dedication to a single project he felt like an impostor. ‘I, particularly uninitiated, not to say undeserving, in this sanctuary of applied, exact science, I, the impractical one, the rebel against every form of cogitation, deduction, of any coherence, born recalcitrant to all calculations, even to primitive rabdologies, irresistibly fleeing everything that is not immediately payment in cash?’
<>In 1863, Nadar was approached by Gabriel de La Landelle, a writer and former naval officer who was determined to achieve flight by heavier-than-air machines. He wanted Nadar’s help, impressed with his knack for self-promotion. Nadar needed no persuasion: he later wrote that he had been ‘brooding’ on the idea for years: ‘It seized me the way the Devil from Hell seized people in the Middle Ages.’ Along with Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt, a rich enthusiast who coined the word helicopter, and several other interested figures including Jules Verne, he formed the Société d’encouragement pour la locomotion aérienne au moyen d’appareils plus lourds que l’air. Nadar issued a manifesto calling for the balloon to be replaced by the ‘sainted Propeller’, but not before one last hurrah. Balloons drew crowds, and Le Géant was to be ‘twenty times larger than the largest hitherto known’. It would be sixty metres high and require more than twenty thousand metres of silk for its two envelopes, one inside the other; Begley reports that the work was done ‘by an army of seamstresses stitching away in a rented dancehall’. The passengers would be carried in a wicker cabin with two floors and six compartments, complete with ‘bunk beds, a printing press, a darkroom and a wine cellar’.
The balloon was launched on a Sunday afternoon in October from the Champs de Mars, where the Eiffel Tower now stands. More than a hundred thousand people, paying a franc each, gathered to see it off. Nadar thought they might get as far as Russia. Instead Le Géant came down three and a half hours after setting off, in a field on the outskirts of Paris. ‘It was a murky evening, then a dark night,’ Begley writes, and Nadar had become disoriented, but the balloon’s precipitous drop was the result of a technical fault: the valve controlling the amount of gas in the balloon had been wide open for the entire flight. Still, as a publicity stunt it was a triumph. A second launch was organised just a fortnight later, again from the Champs de Mars; Napoleon III turned up to see the spectacle with the young king of Greece. This time Le Géant managed 16 hours and four hundred miles before descending rapidly and, caught in a gale, careering across the ground for half an hour, cabin and passengers smashing against the ground, rearing back up into the air again and again, before finally coming to rest, its nine passengers jettisoned with various injuries, in the countryside near Hanover.
Nadar persisted with Le Géant even after these disasters, and although a lack of funds finally forced him to sell it in 1867, that wasn’t the end of his ballooning. In 1870, with Paris under siege, and no means of communicating with the French provisional government in Tours, he proposed using balloons to drop sacks of correspondence over enemy lines. The balloonists of his Compagnie des aérostiers became postmen, as Begley puts it, ‘delivering the world’s first airmail’, though the endeavour came to an abrupt end in 1871 when the Prussians marched into Paris.
Begley dedicates too few pages to another of Nadar’s obsessions, which he somehow found time to pursue along with everything else. A sketch by the cartoonist Cham in the early 1860s shows a man looking up at the sky while a sewage worker points down to a manhole. ‘Looking for Mr Nadar? He’s not there anymore! He’s down here!’ The subterranean world of the sewers and catacombs of Paris appealed to Nadar – he had a taste for the gothic – but their real pull was the challenge they presented to the photographer. He set himself the task of becoming the first person to take a photograph in the absence of daylight. First he descended into the catacombs, former quarries used since the end of the 18th century, as Begley explains, ‘to house the bones of millions of dead Parisians’ which had been moved from the city’s overcrowded cemeteries. Today the catacombs are open six days a week; you enter opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop in the 14th arrondissement. In 1861, visitors were only allowed in four times a year, so very few would have seen what Nadar wanted to bring to light. The logistics were onerous. The underground chambers had to be lit with dozens of Bunsen batteries – ‘cumbersome and fragile’ jars containing acid and metal, ‘which emitted less than two volts, emitted noxious fumes and lost their charge as soon as the acid weakened’ – wired in series. The exposure time required with such a weak light source was about 18 minutes. No one could reasonably be asked to hold a pose for that long, so Nadar posed mannequins as catacomb workers, but he did manage to photograph himself, sitting on a crate by a wall of skulls and bones. He must have held fairly still – his face is only slightly blurred – but although he was ‘probably trying to look nonchalant’, Begley writes, ‘instead he looks louche and a trifle irritated.’
Three years later, Nadar photographed the sewers. The images, Begley writes, ‘are conspicuously modern, some of them resembling abstract images of complex geometric shapes, some of them lingering on the means of their own production: carriages full of Bunsen batteries, jumbles of wires and stands of electric lamps’. As with his aerial photos, Nadar was using the earliest techniques of photography to give people the opportunity to see places and from perspectives until then impossible for most to gain access to. ‘They cost me a lot,’ he said afterwards, referring to the hours he had spent in darkness, with the rats and old bones and turgid water, ‘but I did not regret anything.’