In the early 1860s, the name Nadar loomed large over Paris’ boulevard des Capucines. Thirty-five boulevard des Capucines, to be exact – in nearly story-high, semi-translucent letters, the photographer’s sinuous signature lit up the façade, beckoning customers to his top floor portrait studio, encased in glass and flooded with flattering natural light.
The signature, which glowed red, may have been the city’s first illuminated sign (designed by Antoine Lumière, father to cinematic masterminds Auguste and Louis), but for Nadar, it was as much a status symbol as it was an advertising ploy. With a studio more luscious than that of Gustave le Gray, decorated with a gallery of his most successful, envy-inducing celebrity portraits, he had finally made it – the most famous photographer in Second Empire-Paris.
The Great Nadar – The Man Behind on the Camera, opens in the midst of a ballooning-inspired self-portrait session on the boulevard des Capucines – a fitting introduction to the eccentric life of our protagonist by author Adam Begley. His intoxicating new biography of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known (almost) exclusively by his nom de plume, Nadar, is a heady cocktail of celebrity, financial woes, artistic feuds, political turmoil and aeronautics, all set in front of the velvety red backdrop of his studio and its photographic reputation.
For many readers, this reputation will precede Nadar himself. His portraits of Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, and other literary and artistic figures in his bohemian circle ensured Nadar’s prominence in the pantheon of early photographic greats. Their celebrity helped to make him a star, and his talent for drawing out their most seductive qualities, and capturing them in collodion, solidified his status in the history books.
Begley’s book, however, is a deep dive into the man, not just the photographer. It is (surprisingly) the first English-language biography about Nadar, who, at the time of his death, was better known for his achievements (or catastrophes) in the field of ballooning than for his skills behind the camera. A Parisian jack-of-all-trades, Nadar aimed to be a writer, before he garnered attention as an illustrator and caricaturist, wittily barbing friends and foes alike in the gossip rags of mid-19th century Paris.
When the photographic frenzy of the 1850s hit Paris, it presented Nadar with a most perfect medium: flashy and lucrative, it allowed him to continue mingling with the most respected artists of his day. But he was also a quick talent – Begley takes us through many of his sittings, imagining studio interactions, detailing correspondence between photographer and sitter, and musing generously on individual images. He ventures with Nadar out of the studio and into the sky (Nadar produced the first aerial photograph from his balloon) and the depths of Paris (to produce the first pictures of the Catacombs and the sewers). When his interest in the studio gives way to full-time ballooning, Begley richly illustrates this part of his life, which is so often reduced to caricature – Nadar high above the studios of Paris, tipping his camera out of the basket, hat flying off his head.
It seems, as Begley notes in his final chapter, that reputation was always a problem for Nadar – in life, he was constantly chasing fame, and in death, his reputation outshone his life’s work. Begley’s book, written enthusiastically, affectionately, and grounded in first-person accounts, is a revelation – after years of caricature, we have a clear image of Nadar, ‘from life.’
– reviewed by Mary Pelletier
The Great Nadar – The Man Behind the Camera by Adam Begley was published in 2017 by Tim Duggan Books/Crown Publishing and is available through Penguin Random House.
Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon] (French, 1820 – 1910), [Self-Portrait], about 1855, Salted paper prints from glass negatives, 20.5 × 17 cm (8 1/16 × 6 11/16 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon] (French, 1820 – 1910), [Felix Nadar in the Gondola of a Balloon], about 1863, Albumen silver print, 7.8 × 5.6 cm (3 1/16 × 2 3/16 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon] (French, 1820 – 1910), Paul Nadar (French, 1856 – 1939), [Sarah Bernhardt], negative about 1864; print about 1924 ?, Gelatin silver print, 21.1 x 16.2 cm (8 5/16 x 6 3/8 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles