Be­hind the lens

Nadar, one of France’s most cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­phers, has the spot­light turned on him

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL DIRDA Michael Dirda reg­u­larly re­views for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

If you ever hap­pened to take a col­lege course in 19th-cen­tury French lit­er­a­ture — this would be be­fore you bowed to parental pres­sure and switched your ma­jor to busi­ness or pre-med — you might have come across the name “Nadar,” al­beit in the tiny type of a pic­ture credit. The most cel­e­brated French pho­tog­ra­pher of his time, Nadar memo­ri­al­ized Alexan­dre Du­mas, Théophile Gau­tier, Gérard de Ner­val, Charles Baude­laire, Vic­tor Hugo, Ge­orge Sand, Honoré Dau­mier, Jules Verne and scores of other cel­e­brated writ­ers and artists. Be­cause of his pi­o­neer­ing cam­era work, we can still look upon the haunt­ing, charis­matic beauty of a 20-year-old ac­tress, then vir­tu­ally un­known, who would even­tu­ally be­come, as Adam Be­g­ley writes, “the most fa­mous woman in the world”: Sarah Bern­hardt, the di­vine Sarah. Nadar’s even more mag­nif­i­cent por­trait of his wife in old age earned the en­rap­tured praise of the critic Roland Barthes. It is cer­tainly one of the loveli­est pho­to­graphs of all time.

“The Great Nadar” lacks the ob­vi­ous com­mer­cial ap­peal of Be­g­ley’s pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­phy, a ca­pa­cious, re­veal­ing life of the nov­el­ist John Updike, so that it comes across as a la­bor of love. Yet the word “la­bor” hardly char­ac­ter­izes the suavity, swift­ness and econ­omy of its text. The book is a plea­sure to read, though one could al­most buy it just for the pic­tures.

Born in 1820, Gas­pard-Félix Tour­na­chon adopted “Nadar” as a nom de plume when he and his pals were strug­gling young writ­ers and painters. Henry Murger would de­pict their hard­scrab­ble ex­is­tence in the novel “Scènes de la Vie de Bo­hème” (which later pro­vided the plot for Puc­cini’s opera, “La Bo­hème”). Ac­cord­ing to Nadar’s friend Charles Bataille they lived in a du­bi­ous quar­ter largely pop­u­lated by the kind of women who “were likely to lead you quickly and di­rectly to the de­fin­i­tive goal of all hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Nadar briefly en­joyed the in­ti­mate com­pan­ion­ship of Haitian­born Jeanne Du­val, who later be­came Baude­laire’s mis­tress (and the sub­ject of some of his great­est po­ems). An­other of Nadar’s close friends, the poet Ner­val, would walk his pet lob­ster in the gar­dens of the Palais-Royal, us­ing a length of blue­silk rib­bon as a leash. Ner­val said he kept the crus­tacean as a pet be­cause it did not make noise and be­cause it knew the se­crets of the deep.

As Be­g­ley stresses, Nadar pos­sessed ir­re­press­ible en­ergy, as well as a flair for friend­ship and self-pro­mo­tion. Ini­tially, he styled him­self a man of let­ters, turn­ing out ar­ti­cles and re­views, found­ing his own (short-lived) mag­a­zine, The Book of Gold, and even pub­lish­ing a now-for­got­ten novel. Be­g­ley sums up this last as track­ing “the for­tunes of a quar­tet of pen­ni­less lads living, when we meet them, in a gar­ret.” As they say, write what you know.

As it turned out, how­ever, Nadar first made his mark as an il­lus­tra­tor, pro­duc­ing celebrity car­i­ca­tures for ma­jor Parisian pe­ri­od­i­cals. He grew so suc­cess­ful that he es­tab­lished an Andy Warhol-like “fac­tory” to churn out draw­ings that he would sign, in a Napoleonic ges­ture, with the swirling ini­tial “N.” Later, his pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness would em­ploy as many as 50 peo­ple, Nadar only deign­ing to go be­hind the cam­era for celebri­ties and friends.

The pho­tog­ra­pher eas­ily wea­ried of what the French call “le train-train quo­ti­dien” — the daily grind. He needed chal­lenges, ex­cite­ment, even ad­ver­saries — and aero­nau­tics would sup­ply these. At 37, Nadar made his first bal­loon as­cent, quickly grow­ing con­vinced that only a heav­ier-than-air fly­ing ma­chine, prob­a­bly one with a pro­peller, could ever prop­erly nav­i­gate the skies. Bal­loons were sim­ply play­things of the wind. As a pub­lic­ity stunt, he none­the­less con­structed the Giant. This was a huge bal­loon that “had a wicker cabin built on two lev­els with six sep­a­rate com­part­ments and room enough for twenty on its ob­ser­va­tion deck.” It boasted a lava­tory and bunk beds, as well as a print­ing press, dark­room and a wine cel­lar. On its sec­ond flight, the gi­gan­tic air bag was caught in a gale and nearly killed its pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing Nadar and his wife. There was no real way to steer the thing.

Here Be­g­ley could be very mildly faulted on his re­search. While he duly notes Nadar’s friend­ship with Jules Verne, men­tions the lat­ter’s “Five Weeks in a Bal­loon” and points out that the hero of “From the Earth to the Moon” is named Ar­dan (an ana­gram of Nadar), there is no men­tion of “Robur the Con­queror.” This Verne novel ad­dresses, in­deed ham­mers away at, pre­cisely those is­sues about the fu­ture of flight that ob­sessed Nadar. Its cli­max de­picts an air bat­tle be­tween the Al­ba­tross, the pi­rat­i­cal Robur’s fly­ing ma­chine, and a huge, state-of-the art bal­loon called the Go-Ahead.

It seems only just that Nadar would live long enough to see the ad­vent of mod­ern air­craft. Shortly be­fore his death in 1910, just shy of his 90th birthday, he was able to tele­graph his con­grat­u­la­tions when Louis Blériot crossed the English Chan­nel in a mono­plane.

Yet Be­g­ley doesn’t end “The Great Nadar” here. In a sub­stan­tial ap­pendix, ti­tled “Me­men­tos of Nadar’s World,” he presents a gallery of the no­ta­bles who vis­ited the pho­tog­ra­pher’s stu­dio. These in­cluded the an­ar­chist Mikhail Bakunin, the for­mer French prime min­is­ter François Guizot and the jour­nal­ist Alphonse Karr, now mainly re­mem­bered for his im­mor­tal epi­gram, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Be­g­ley quotes from the funny and ec­cen­tric com­ments these and other clients left in Nadar’s guest book. The re­sult makes for a de­light­ful close to a con­cise and de­light­ful bi­og­ra­phy.


Pho­tog­ra­pher Nadar, above left, was known for pho­tograph­ing some of the most no­table fig­ures of his time, in­clud­ing Vic­tor Hugo and Jules Verne. An­other sub­ject was ac­tress Sarah Bern­hardt, seen in 1864.

THE GREAT NADAR The Man Be­hind the Cam­era By Adam Be­g­ley Tim Dug­gan. 248 pp. $28

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