Adam Begley, The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Tim Duggan Books/Crown Publishing (here). Hardcover (6 x 9.5 inches), 248 deckle-edged pages, with 132 black-and-white illustrations (photographs and line drawings), $28. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In his 1865 sci-fi novel, De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon), Jules Verne bestowed the name Ardan on one of his headstrong protagonists—a French adventurer game for any mission, provided it will be sufficiently grandiose and hair-raising. The story unfolds in post-Civil War America where a small group of industrial scientists are devoting their considerable wealth and talents to the invention of super-weapons. Ardan is their all-too-willing human guinea pig: to help win a bet for a friend, he volunteers to be blasted out of an enormous cannon in an artillery shell aimed at the moon.

Verne describes his character as a “man with the best and most audacious heart,” and the writer Adam Begley further limns him as “facetious, impatient, and combative, a big spender without a hint of avarice or greed, Ardan says tu to everyone, talks too much, always gets the last word, relishes practical jokes, and fights fiercely for lost causes.”

As many of Verne’s readers would have guessed, Ardan was an anagram of his friend Nadar, and the fictional portrait drawn in the novel was, according to Begley’s biographical one, close to the truth. Impulsive, generous, loyal, witty, full of hare-brained schemes and dreams—he became internationally famous after launching himself over Paris in a series of well-publicized balloon trips during the 1860s—Nadar emerges in this slim, affectionate account as an admirable man impossible for his contemporaries to ignore or dislike.

Photography was only one of his careers and Verne’s novel only one of the novels in which he had a cameo. Born in Paris as Gaspard-Félix Tourachon in 1820—Nadar was a nickname picked up as a boy that he quickly put to use “as a nom de plume and then as a logo”—he lived as a young man in the Latin Quarter among his fellow “Bohemians.” These were the young Parisians who in the 1840s created the artistic standard for living below the poverty line with style. One of the stories in Henri Murger’s 1851 novel Scènes de la vie Bohème (the basis for a successful play and later the Puccini opera) has an outrageous party scene clearly based on a soirée staged chez Nadar.

Initially he hoped to follow the typical path of other Romantics of his generation and write novels. The only one he published, though, was neither a big seller nor competent. High-minded prudery may have limited the scope of his sympathies. He did not like to describe any part of a woman’s body other than her face and believed that fiction should always provide moral uplift. As a result, writes Begley, he disapproved of Balzac’s novels, while being in awe of his celebrity, and he could never bring himself to open Madame Bovary.

After proving himself equally inept as a journalist, Nadar taught himself to draw and took up cartooning, with a specialty in newsy caricature. What success he enjoyed in this crowded field was due in no small part to the editor Charles Philipon, a key supporter of Daumier as well. (Nadar later made superb portraits of both men, whose generous spirits and socialist politics overlapped with his own.)

Félix took up photography in 1854 only after he saw how readily his brother Adrien had learned the fundamentals from studies with Gustave Le Gray. Before they had a litigious falling out, the siblings shared a studio and collaborated for several years—instituting a braided partnership that 21st century curators have yet to untangle completely.

How a portraitist of modest means and notoriety managed to steer almost everyone of note in the literary and artistic world of Paris into his studio for a session on 35, boulevard des Capucines between 1854-60 is explained by several factors. Pals from his Bohemian days, such as Théophile Gautier, acted as scouts. Nadar had honed his networking skills as a freelance journalist and his contacts extended into theatre and music. Jacques Offenbach played the Marseillaise on a piano at a lavish party in his studio.

His avid plan in 1852 to publish lithographic portraits of every notable Frenchman (and Frenchwoman) of his day—the Panthéon-Nadar—had brought him publicity equal to anyone on his who’s who list of 500 eminences, even if he ran out of money in 1854-55 before completing the project. He was also a master showman who displayed his name in large red letters (illuminated at night by gas) on the façade of his building. No one was quicker to figure out that photographers and aspiring celebrities could benefit each other in achieving money and fame.

As Félix grew more comfortable with the camera, he found that his years as a caricaturist were not wasted and that he had developed a sensitivity to the various ways that human faces and bodies could express personality—a knack that others, including Adrien, didn’t have. The discovery that he possessed an unsuspected gift only fueled his enthusiasm for the new medium. He fell deeply in love with photography.

Begley singles out Nadar’s many self-portraits for special praise, and deservedly so. Like a lot of mad scientists in 19th century fiction, he experimented on himself before he experimented on others, Most astounding is a playful series of 12 half-length portraits in which he twists his position slightly in every shot until he has completely revolved. As Begley points out, it’s like an action flip-book and a precursor of cinema.

Outside the studio, Nadar lugged his camera and several battery packs into the sewers and catacombs below Paris in order to test the results of photographing by artificial light in the dark. As Begley writes: “Part of the excitement of looking at the early photographs is the chance to see an artist who has thoroughly mastered a technique yet still seems to be feeling his way, learning something new with each exposure.”

We don’t know why the young, unknown Sarah Bernhardt made her way to Nadar’s studio in 1862. But she must have heard that signed photographs by him of her opened doors to Paris society and could aid her career. What she couldn’t have known is that these portraits would be regarded as masterworks, her sphinx-like sexiness enchanting the man on the other side of the lens. Even aging eminences were susceptible to his entreaties and knew that sitting for him was an honor. Begley has a charming story about Nadar’s wooing the homely George Sand to his studio with repeated offers between 1861-64. Although she distrusted the medium after a Daguerreotype by Richebourg in 1852 had revealed her double chin with too much detail, at last she relented to Nadar’s flattery. From many exposures they worked together to select a dignified portrait that both could be proud of.

Most importantly, perhaps, he was a celebrity himself, a man that others wanted to know and to be around. He combined nonstop energy with self-deprecating humor; he didn’t mind when the joke was on him. Given the scale of his dreams, financial troubles were inevitable and not only earned but welcomed. He wasn’t bothered or downcast when his crazy plans went awry. After all, disasters can make for better stories to friends at the bar, so long as no one was injured. Ardan’s motto in Verne’s novel was also Nadar’s: “Quand meme” (“Whatever.”)

The liveliest chapters in the book are devoted to Nadar’s ballooning exploits. Obsessed with the possibilities of manned flight, he spent much of the 1860s raising money and preparing for trips that would carry him across borders and maybe oceans. His grandest apparatus was a colossal balloon, 12 stories high, that he named Le Geant (The Giant). Described in his publicity as “twenty times larger than the largest hitherto known,” it had a gondola with two levels and six compartments, could hold up to twenty on the observation deck, and housed a kitchen, a toilet, bunk beds, a printing press, and a wine cellar.

Spectators were charged admission to watch its successful lift-off on July, 1864 from the Champs de Mars. Luckily, no one saw its abrupt and unscheduled descent that night near a provincial town, Nor did the public witness an even more unceremonious flight in October when the vessel plummeted again, nearly killing all nine on board as well as the passengers on a speeding train that had to brake on the tracks to avoid a collision. Nadar polished the story for maximum drama and commissioned a cartoon with an aerial view of the scary balloon-train near-miss. The misadventure earned him headlines in newspapers around the world and ensured that he would always be more renowned during his life as a visionary, failed aeronaut than as a photographer.

Begley’s biography—the first in English—is highly enjoyable, although better for its psychological insights and zippy anecdotes than its facts, dates, and figures about photography. He is acute about the role of Nadar’s father Victor, in giving his son a secure social standing. A publisher from Lyon, he was solidly bourgeois, until he fell into ruin. As a result, unlike others who took up photography, Félix never felt a need to apologize for his profession. “He felt no need to strive; nor did he worry about slumming,” writes Begley. “He was neither precious about this own artistic talent nor disdainful of technical tasks.”

Begley has leaned heavily (as he acknowledges) on the three previous biographies in French; on the 1994-95 Orsay-Met exhibition catalog for Nadar: The Creative Years: 1854-60, notably the essays by Maria Morris Hambourg and Françoise Heilbrunn; and on the many articles and half-a-dozen books Nadar wrote about himself. His prose style, reports Begley, was fast-paced and rough, more like spoken than written French. Transitions between topics were sudden, like jump cuts. “To be indecorous and unconventional was for him a sign of authenticity.”

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Begley was a book critic in New York. John Updike was the subject of his previous biography and this one reflects a literary penchant. He name-checks and tells stories about numerous French writers of the period (Balzac, Nerval, Baudelaire, Gautier, Banville, the Goncourt brothers, Sand, Desbordes-Valmore, Hugo, Dumas père et fils.)

But the names of other photographers are harder to find. We are told that 350 of them were making their living in Paris at the height of “photomania” in the mid-1860s. Other than Nadar’s slighting reference to Disdéri as an ugly man with no talent, a mass-marketer whose cartes de visites depressed the deluxe portrait business, however, they aren’t given much of a voice in the book. The opportunities to get rich quick off photography at the time must have been irresistable  and the rivalry for clients savage. This heady atmosphere is sadly missing from the book.

Begley writes about Nadar’s friendship with Étienne Carjat, but never compares their work or notes that Carjat, too, began as a caricaturist. Also missing from the pages are any mention of Pierre Petit, Antoine-Samuel Adam-Salomon, Auguste Bertsch, Victor Laisné, or—most inexplicably—Pierre-Louis Pierson. Begley might also have profitably connected Nadar to another 19th century photographer-entrepreneur who overextended himself: Matthew Brady.

Nadar didn’t offer posterity much help in explaining himself. The title of his 1900 memoir, Quand j’étais photographe (When I was a photographer) discloses scant technical information about his years in the studio. How he relaxed or cajoled his subjects, what he charged for a portrait, whether it was more or less than Carjat or Pierson, what cameras and papers he favored, we don’t learn from him or from Begley.

Despite legal wrangles over use of his name by his brother, Adrien, and then his son, Paul—Begley sides with Félix in both disputes—Nadar led an honorable life. He helped to free a condemned man from the clutches of the government during the Paris Commune—a daredevil rescue that involved conspiring with the arch-conservative Alexandre Dumas fils—and he could be counted on to lend a hand to old friends. He raised money for an exhibition by Daumier in 1878 when the artist was blind and broke.

Nadar became a prominent footnote in art history in 1874 when his studio housed an exhibition by the Societé anonyme cooperative des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, a group later known as the Impressionists. What isn’t as often recalled is that the photographer had by then closed his business and moved to the country—he leased out the place to many enterprises—and that he disparaged the new school of painters. His taste in many artistic matters was patriotic and conventional.

I wondered while reading Begley if his biography might have been inspired by his reading two books by British authors: Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief over his wife’s death, in which Nadar’s aerial photographs serve as a metaphor for a perspective on the past; and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, a novel about a freakish, tragic balloon accident.

Nadar’s devotion to his wife, Ernestine, is one of the touching themes of Begley’s book. She was half his age when they were married but they stayed together, happily, for 55 years. She took his side in every argument, patiently endured the booms and busts, and was the only female passenger on Le Géant when it almost killed them both. He might have succeeded in doing so if she hadn’t put a stop to the escapades.

His early portrait of her in about 1854 reveals a set of plain features and a tough, assessing gaze that stares at the lens. Her outlook and his had softened, however, by the time that he made another version of her in about 1890. White-haired and infirm, seated in a chair and holding a bouquet of violets over her mouth, she is looking to the right of the camera. It regards her with an infinite tenderness that also conveys through her upraised arm a steely strength. Roland Barthes declared it “one of the loveliest photographs in the world.”

Had he not been captivated, temporarily, by the mid-century fad for photography, Nadar would likely not be remembered. His books are unread, his aeronautic feats largely forgotten. We are lucky that he turned his attention, however briefly, to the expressive potential of the camera. The cultural record of Paris in the 1850s and ‘60s would be full of blanks if not for his portraits. What’s more, after reading Begley’s unabashedly partisan biography, you can’t help thinking that the world—and not just Paris or photography—would have been a duller, colder place had Nadar never existed.

Collector’s POV: Nadar’s photographs have become increasingly scarce in recent years, his works appearing at auction only intermittently in the past decade, where prices have ranged from $1000 to $160000, largely dependent on the fame of the subject. His work is also often included in albums of portraiture (writers, artists, etc.), where it is mixed in with the images of other 19th century French photographers.

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Read more about: Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), Tim Duggan Books (Crown Publishing)

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