Up in the Air

In nineteenth-century Paris, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who went by the pseudonym Nadar, took photographic portraits of everyone he knew. It’s quite a crowd: There are the illustrators Honoré Daumier and Gustave Doré; the painters Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet; the composers Hector Berlioz and Gioachino Rossini; and the writers Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, and Charles Baudelaire. The standard Nadar shot is a three-quarter view, lit naturally from the left and a little above, with a plain mid-toned background and a sitter in dark clothes. If that sounds dull, a parade of his best work is anything but. His portraits are stark and majestic, with none of the flat conventionality of ordinary carte de visite studio shots, and the austere format allows light to bring out each subject’s singular character. While his British contemporaries Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll were composing classical scenes or adorning small children with draperies, Nadar concentrated on catching, with uncanny precision, the particularities of a face.

One figure stands out among the grandees in his collection: an eighteen-year-old girl with arms crossed, chin out, and suspicious eyes. She looks as if she’s asking the photographer for a fight, or resisting arrest (which, in a way, she was: blurring a little as he fixed her onto glass). This is Ernestine, Nadar’s wife. Looking at them now, though, all his subjects come across with almost shocking immediacy (more like people in reconstructions than in old photographs), as if they were our own contemporaries, dressed up.

It’s for these portraits that Nadar is best known. But that statement would no doubt have him rolling over in Père Lachaise; there were, after all, so many other grounds for fame. He was a satirist, a journalist, a caricaturist; he was a failed revolutionary with a fake Polish passport. He was an early balloonist, who took the first photographs from the sky and became the model for a character in a Jules Verne novel; he was the first to take pictures underground, too, flooding the capital’s catacombs with battery-operated light. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, he helped organize the world’s first airmail service. He took part in a banquet to launch the publication of Les Misérables when Victor Hugo was in exile; he lent his studio to the Impressionists so that they could hold their first exhibition; he was one of the original bohemians, who would become the subjects of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. According to Baudelaire, he was “the most astonishing expression of vitality.” It’s hard to tell from photographs that he was red-haired and six feet tall, but one thing is evident: Nadar looks restless, even in the portraits he took of himself. His gaze is willful and urgent, as if reproaching the camera for its insufficient speed.

Impatience had brought him to photography in the first place. In 1851, the wet-collodion process was invented, making development much faster and allowing for the infinite reproduction of images on paper—unlike the daguerreotype, or William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype, wet collodion produces a negative on glass. Nadar had become responsible for his feckless younger brother, Adrien, and now he had an idea for what to do with him: making photos with the collodion process seemed so simple that even Adrien could probably manage it. So in 1854, the elder brother set the younger up with a portraiture business on the boulevard des Capucines.

Inevitably, Nadar soon wondered why he hadn’t thought of keeping the work for himself. At the time, he was making a living drawing caricatures for newspapers, and his flair for spotting a telling gesture or characteristic expression was ideally suited to the new near-instant medium. His conviviality lent itself to the photographic session, and his intriguing circle of friends offered up obvious subjects. What’s more, as he later wrote, he found he had two gifts as a portrait photographer that could not be taught: “swift tact” and “the sense of light.”

He started his own practice, but by then Adrien had stolen the name “Nadar” and appropriated the swooshing signature he used for his illustrations. Under that name, Adrien took a number of photographs that the real Nadar would have done well to claim as his own. It’s Adrien who’s responsible for the famous series of images in which the neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne simulates emotions by applying electricity to a man’s face. An equally well-known sequence of poses by an actor dressed as Pierrot was later identified as a collaboration between the two brothers.

Eventually, a near-fratricidal lawsuit prevented Adrien from continuing. Yet, once the battle over his trademark was won, Nadar tired of photography. He had built a glass-fronted studio (with his signature emblazoned on it) at vast expense, but it only highlighted the fact that he was rarely there. “From the boulevard one can see everything that goes on in your studio, and everyone notices that you are never to be seen working,” a friend warned him. His wife was equally concerned that he was leaving everything to be done by his assistants. “Make the photographs yourself, I beg you,” she wrote. When he died in 1910, two weeks short of his ninetieth birthday, Nadar left behind sixty thousand portraits, most of which had been taken by other people.

What should we remember him for? Even if you twist his renown and think of his breakthroughs—the aerial and underground techniques in particular—as more significant than his artistic production, it’s hard to see Nadar as a committed inventor. He was more like a compulsive pioneer: flamboyantly innovative rather than dogged in the long-term pursuit of solutions. “Who or what can stop me,” he asked, rhetorically, “once I have given in to one of my sudden bursts of enthusiasm?”

His final memoir, When I Was a Photographer, would make an excellent basis for a screenplay, not so much for the story it tells as for the sense it gives of his maddening character. Written in 1900, the book is both declamatory and decorative. Full of tales of Nadar’s own stubbornness and excess, its primary mode is digression. Many chapters pass without having communicated any content at all, and where there is a clear subject it’s almost incidental. His account of photographing the catacombs is vivid, but not nearly as memorable as his aside about Balzac’s “little violet apartment” or his reference to the great poet Nerval as “sweet Gérard.”

Félix Nadar, self-portrait, ca. 1855, salted paper print, 8 1/8 × 6 3/4". J. Paul Getty Museum

Nadar’s book—an ingenious derailment of what its title leads you to expect—barely refers to anything that happened to him as a photographer. Instead, it offers anecdotes about things that took place in the period when “photographer” was his identity: that is, the second half of the nineteenth century. Though the book’s translation into English is, naturally, to be welcomed, it’s worth bearing in mind that those who had the chance to read it in its entirety before haven’t always wanted to. The slim French edition currently available contains just five of the original fourteen chapters, which, it notes, are “uneven in length, tone, and interestingness.” Nadar was a tireless writer of journals and memoirs. Two of them—about his trips in Le Géant, the balloon he made famous—became best sellers. A pen portrait of his friend, Charles Baudelaire intime, was published because of their close association. But the quantity of rejected work was vast, possibly because almost anything written about Nadar is more compelling than the words he wrote himself.

Eduardo Cadava’s introduction to this new translation is no exception—reading it, we keep encountering Nadar as a fascinating figure, only to be disappointed when we return to the part of the text he actually wrote. For instance, Cadava argues that the book’s “wildly performative character” should lead us to look at “what the text is doing” rather than what it is saying—an appealing critical stance, but one for which the memoir itself offers little reward. Then there’s the suggestion that Nadar was something of a philosopher. He coined the term Photographopolis, a word that any Walter Benjaminophile would pounce on. Cadava brilliantly suggests that this refers both to Paris (a city “not only photographed, but essentially photographic in nature”) and to a modern world composed of simulacra. But reading the book, you find that what Nadar meant was simply a gossipy community of photographers, all envious of each other, who spread word of the latest techniques.

Despite his meanderings, Nadar tells us more about his time than he may seem to. The nineteenth century was unique in its intersection of fears and marvels. It gave birth to things we now take for granted in the realms of sight, sound, and science; on the other hand, the grip of specters and superstitions grew firmer then than ever. Nothing—not even the phonograph or the X-ray or electricity—straddled both camps more emphatically than photography, which made mirror images of everyday things appear, in the dark.

A couple of years ago, Julian Barnes wrote a book called Levels of Life. It contained three parts: an essay about nineteenth-century aerial explorers, including Nadar; an imagined romance between two of them (the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the British aristocrat Fred Burnaby); and a raw nonfiction account of Barnes’s grief for his late wife. When I read it, I liked the essay and the memoir parts very much but was perplexed by the middle, which seemed almost trashy. After reading Nadar, though, I looked again and found that the passage was nearly mimicking him. What I’d thought was overblown now seemed accurate—or at least, true to a certain late-nineteenth-century spirit. Barnes’s book is partly about how we “aspire to love” (the word aspire evoking both height and air). We do so, he writes, because love is “the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.” But by that reckoning, the meeting point of truth and magic isn’t love at all: It’s Nadar.

Gaby Wood is literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation.