THE GREAT NADAR: The Man Behind the Camera, by Adam Begley. Tim Duggan Books/Crown Publishing, 236 pp., $28.
Who was Nadar? Virtually any French person knows the answer: a fixture on the cultural landscape of Paris in the second half of the 19th century, a driving force behind the close-knit world of artists, writers and eccentrics who came to be known as “bohemians.” But he is much less well-known in the English-speaking world. Adam Begley’s vibrant new biography, “The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera,” tells his story in all its colorful detail. It’s not just the life of a particular genius, but also the life of Paris at a time when its rich and fertile collaborations established it as the artistic capital of the world, a center whose arts and letters surprised, excited, scandalized and charmed like no other city’s.
If you don’t know the particulars of Nadar’s path, you’ve almost certainly seen some of his work, among the most prepossessing of portraits at a time when photography was in its infancy. The list of his subjects is seemingly endless: Hugo, Delacroix, Rossini, Manet, Berlioz, Turgenev, Dumas, Verne, Flaubert, Sand, Bernhardt . . . He knew everyone, and they all agreed to sit for him in his Paris studio. Almost without exception, he produced compelling likenesses, original and direct, that resemble no other portraits of the time. They have endured.
Born in Paris in 1820 as Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, Nadar (a nickname he adopted as a pseudonym) gravitated to the world of poor but hardworking writers and artists centered in Paris. Begley, the author of a biography of John Updike, does a masterful job of evoking this milieu, whose members were sympathetic to the ideal of a republic, as the reign of King Louis-Philippe slowly lost its grip on the public imagination. Nadar tried his hand at a wide variety of pursuits, churning out essays and stories for newspapers, drawing sharp-edged political satires, venturing into art criticism. Begley reveals a personality who was both irrepressible and magnetic — part showman, part impresario, full-time eccentric — drawing every new acquaintance into his circle of friends and collaborators.
Nadar chanced upon photography in the mid 1850s, a perfect moment. From the fixed image made possible by Louis Daguerre’s invention of the 1830s, exposure times had become almost instantaneous. Mass production of photographs was now possible, and the public responded with a limitless hunger. At a time when photographers were regarded variously as magicians, self-promoters and snake-oil salesmen, Nadar insisted that photography was an art. Begley is particularly good at evoking the complexities of his photographic portraits:
“We can’t really know someone by peering at a photograph taken 150 years ago. . . . Yet the magic of Nadar’s portraits — their sincerity, their freshness, their unwavering faith in the possibility of capturing a piercingly accurate psychological likeness — tempts us to forget our skepticism. . . . We’re tempted, when we first see them, to trust the spark of recognition, that instant when we come face to face with a fellow being who’s alive and knowable.”
Influenced by his artist friends, Nadar often used painterly techniques: three-quarter profile views, an emphasis on the face and eyes; sidelighting controlled with reflectors and screens. Above all, he could coax his subjects into revealing an unsuspected side of themselves to his camera.
A restless dreamer all his life, Nadar turned to another of his great obsessions in the 1860s: flight. Begley recounts with riotous detail Nadar’s wild scheme to build the largest balloon ever, a 200-foot-tall behemoth aptly named The Giant, and fly it with nine passengers wherever it took them. The flight was a near total disaster, ending with a crash during a storm in Germany that came close to killing all aboard; Nadar traded on his first-person accounts to become notorious on both sides of the Atlantic.
Reading Begley’s account of this reckless project, it’s hard not to see it as a distraction from his groundbreaking work in portrait photography. But, as this book amply proves, it’s just who Nadar was at his core: ebullient, larger-than-life, eager for new adventures, happiest when he was both documenting and participating in the nascent celebrity culture.
Paradoxically, Nadar was an artist who needed a ferment of activity and enthusiasm around him in order to do his best work. For a charmed decade, he stood at the eye of a storm that he himself helped to create. We can be grateful to Begley for capturing some of that quicksilver spirit, that quintessentially Parisian sensibility, which left us with images that are, in their bewitching way, timeless.