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The Wild of Nadar, an Early Photographer Who Knew How to Give a Party

It’s among the satisfactions of Begley’s “The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera” that he delivers a subtle accounting of Nadar’s career as a photographer while reminding us of his subject’s many other talents and exploits. He was a gifted caricaturist, for example, and a journalist and editor who wrote for dozens of little magazines and newspapers.


An 1855 self-portrait by Nadar.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

He was a pioneering balloonist. Nearly 200,000 Parisians came to see one of his early flights. He took the first aerial photographs and delivered some of the earliest airmail. Jules Verne based his novel “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865) on Nadar. He was dashing and seemed to have no middle gear.

In his journals, Baudelaire wrote, “Nadar is the most astonishing expression of vitality,” adding that he seemed to have “all the vital organs in double.”

Three earlier biographies of Nadar have been published in French. It’s remarkable that Begley’s is the first in English. He’s found a great life to delineate — this book, like that life, roars past with a whooshing sound.

He was called Félix as a child. His more famous moniker was a nickname that became a pseudonym. His parents were, before him, in flight from social conventions. They were opposed to marriage and didn’t wed until their son turned 6. His father was a printer and a bookseller who had poor luck in business.

Nadar was an excitable boy. He was expelled from one school for blowing up, with chemical matches, the stove in his classroom. He thought he might attend medical school, but he fell into journalism instead.


An 1886 aerial photograph of Versailles, taken from a hot-air balloon by Nadar.

Nadar/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

He was not a bad writer. One of his more celebrated essays recounted his monthlong stay in debtor’s prison. But he was a vastly better artist. His sketches of artists and politicians were ingenious and revealing. He drew large heads atop small bodies, and his caricatures resembled those David Levine (1926-2009) would later draw for The New York Review of Books.

His caricatures made him famous. The French poet and writer Théodore de Banville described them this way: “A heap of astonishing bizarre masterpieces — absurd, crazy, naïve, insolent, charming — that had nothing to do with the art of Raphael and resembled the drawings of a wickedly smart child.”

He was restless, always in motion. When the first commercial cameras appeared on the market, he became obsessed with them. The three inventions that defined modernity, he thought, were “photography, electricity, and aeronautics.”

He used his social connections to make images of Paris’s cultural elite, and sometimes also his raffish friends. At the height of his fame as a portrait photographer, he worked out of an extravagant studio that Begley describes this way:

“In the lobby on the ground floor, open to the boulevard, Nadar’s celebrity portraits were proudly displayed; on the third floor were two lavish salons; a corridor decorated with portraits-charge by Nadar led to the stairway up to the huge top-floor workspace, just as opulent as the salons and more spectacular. Water flowed in sheets down the outside of a large glass pane in the ceiling; it was piped into the studio, where it cascaded onto a boulder, cooling the room on hot summer days.”

On top of the building was a lighted sign in red, a replica of Nadar’s by-then-famous signature, designed by Antoine Lumière, the father of those cinematic pioneers the Lumière brothers. The sign was “not so subtle by day,” Begley writes, “and positively bling when lit up by gas at night.”


The biographer Adam Begley, author of “The Great Nadar.”

Jane Berridge

He was lucky to survive his aerial escapades. He flew beneath giant balloons, with guests in a wicker gondola with a kitchen, bathroom, wine cellar, printing press and darkroom. He was better at going up than coming down. There were serious scrapes as his balloon dragged across the earth before crash-landing in a field 25 miles east of Paris.

Nadar was brave; he was a good friend; he was generous; he was married to the same woman for 55 years and took intense photographs of her at many stages of her life. Roland Barthes called one of these images, of Nadar’s aging wife in the years after she had had a stroke, “one of the loveliest photographs in the world.”

This story, in other words, would be hard to mangle, and Begley, whose previous book was a biography of John Updike, most assuredly does not.

In this short biography, he finds room for well-designed detours into areas like the “ill-defined social position” of photographers, who “floated somewhere between artisan and technician, merchant and shopkeeper — somewhere between working class and bourgeois.”

“Instead of this absurd division into sexes,” Evelyn Waugh once said, “they ought to class people as static and dynamic.” Nadar’s dynamism — he made other men seem already on the embalmer’s table — transmits across the ages.

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