The year is 1865, or possibly 1864. The place is a four-story building on the south side of the boulevard des Capucines, between La Madeleine and the Opéra, strolling distance from the epicenter of fashionable Paris. If you look up, you’ll see near the top of the facade of number 35 a name in giant script: Nadar, signed with a flourish in red glass tubing, the letters ten feet high, the whole trademark fifty feet long. At night the sign is gaslit, a garish crimson beacon advertising the studio of the most famous photographer in France. Nadar is a celebrity, renowned not only for his portraits of eminent contemporaries but also for his caricatures, his writings, his radical politics, and his daredevil exploits as a balloonist. Today he will be calling upon several of his talents at once: he is at work on a portrait of himself as an aeronaut, a task that combines self-exposure with self-promotion and self-caricature. His motives, like almost all motives, are mixed. The photograph will advertise his art, promote the cause of human flight — the cause closest to his heart (at the moment) — and serve a specific commercial purpose: generate publicity for a memoir of his most notorious ballooning adventure. But he’s chronically incapable of suppressing the artistic ambition that has shaped his photographic career — that is, the urge to capture in every portrait an intimate and compelling psychological likeness. This photo will be a triumph.
The preparation is elaborate. A balloon gondola, a wicker basket about the size of a steamer trunk, is draped in paisley fabric and suspended from the steel rafters of the studio’s glass ceiling. Equipped for flight, complete with grapnel anchor hooked to the side, the gondola must appear to hang from a vast aerostat hovering above, just beyond the frame of the photo. A canvas backdrop of painted clouds gives the illusion that the basket is floating high in the sky — such is the low-tech fakery of early photography. One of Nadar’s assistants attends to the camera, a bulky box mounted on four spidery wooden legs. Covered with a heavy black cloth, the young man peers through the lens at his boss and releases the shutter. Exposure time is a few seconds, so the celebrated aeronaut must hold his pose.
And there he is, aloft, a dapper Nadar in top hat, black coat, and floppy cravat, a jaunty tartan blanket tossed over his shoulder — a dandy of the air. Billowing out from under the brim of the hat, his hair is long, thick, and curly. His mustache, bushy, unkempt, is a reminder of his bohemian youth. Because the photo is black and white, turned sepia with age, we miss the effect of his coloring: hair and mustache are fiery red. Seated in the gondola, elbows out, shoulders square, he’s a solid, capable presence. He radiates composure and serious intent, as though he were charged with making important observations from a great height — in one hand he clutches an impressive pair of binoculars. His purposeful demeanor conveys calm in the face of danger: he is a man on a mission, going it alone.
An uncropped print of the photo comically undercuts that message: at the edge of the image, a few feet from the gondola, another assistant stands idly by, clearly unmoved by his boss’s simulated aerial adventure. The bored look on this employee’s face brings Nadar down to earth with a bump. Our hero is not drifting along with the clouds; the bottom of the basket is barely a yard above the studio floor. His long legs are tucked up inside the gondola; layers of bulky clothing and an assertive pose disguise his gangly frame — he’s about as solid as a broomstick. As for the observations he might be making from on high, he’s in truth very nearsighted, his prominent, widely spaced eyes too weak for reconnaissance. (Look closely, and you can see his spectacles hanging on a ribbon around his neck.) Though he is in fact a brave man, in most other respects the impression he’s pushing to make is false. There’s never been anything calm about Nadar: his close friend Baudelaire singled him out as “the most astonishing expression of vitality.” Exuberant, agitated, impetuous, horrified by tedium and relentlessly and infectiously gregarious, Nadar in his mid-forties is cheerfully scattered, still childlike in his roaring enthusiasms. He means well — but many in his army of companions know that they can’t always rely on him.
From “The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera,” by Adam Begley. Copyright © 2017 by Adam Begley. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved.