Adam Begley’s book begins with an image of the 19th-century French photographer Nadar drifting among the clouds in a hot air balloon. Wearing a top hat and a floppy cravat, with a tartan blanket casually draped over one shoulder, he is depicted not as an ordinary traveller but as ‘a dandy of the air’. An uncropped version reveals that in fact Nadar was in a studio, suspended just a few feet above the ground, but the photograph is also a fake in more subtle ways. Nadar’s fiery red hair and moustache are a muted grey, while his dreamy expression makes it look as if he is posing for posterity. In real life, he had what his close friend Baudelaire called ‘the most astonishing expression of vitality’. All this makes him a highly elusive subject for biographers, which may be why until recently – Nadar features in both Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life and Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards – so few have taken up the challenge. Nevertheless, Begley does a brilliant job of bringing him back to life. In this witty, punchy book, Nadar flies again.
Born in 1820, Nadar was christened Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. When he was in his forties, he looked back on his younger self with a merciless eye, characterising himself as a ‘dabbler’ and a ‘mistrustful embracer of all quarrels’. In fact his greatest weakness, as Begley points out, was ‘a hatred of boredom’. Even his name suffered at the hands of his impatience: he first transformed it from Tournachon to Tournadard, and then trimmed it to Nadar. It was also a sign that he was determined to be a self-made man.
His first career emerged during a ‘garret-hopping’ youth straight out of La Bohème, when he ended up working in Paris as a jobbing journalist. ‘As a writer,’ Begley observes, ‘he wanted to grab you and shake you hard, to breathe in your face.’ He was equally uncompromising in his second career, as a self-taught cartoonist who published large-headed caricatures of the greatest wits and most prominent politicians of the day.
It was not until 1854, however, when he ducked under the black cloth of a camera, that he found his true calling. Soon he had a glass-roofed studio of his own in Paris. Outside flared a version of his signature in red letters ten feet high, like a massive Gallic ‘Ta-Dah!’ Inside, a contraption that ‘looked like a giant caped spider staring with a single dark eye’ attracted a steady flow of celebrities willing to pay Nadar’s high prices. Despite the noise he made in the rest of his life, Begley points out, ‘it is the quiet pause, the stillness and silence as he released the camera’s shutter, opened and closed in a heartbeat, that makes an irresistible claim on our attention’.
It isn’t hard to see why. Although Nadar had a talent for publicity, he had an absolute genius for friendship. In his most famous photographs, this is clear in the relationship between himself and his subjects. Whether he is depicting George Sand looking sage-like or Victor Hugo offering himself up to the camera ‘with patient fortitude’, all his portraits reveal something about Nadar himself. Regardless of his growing wealth and fame, in many ways he remained the same gawky youth who, within two minutes of meeting the writer Charles Bataille, was stuffing little balls of bread into his ears and affectionately calling him imbéchille (‘imbecile’ with a lisp). He may have had an ego the size of a house, but he also had a gigantic sense of fun.
This sense of fun animates every page of Begley’s biography. Photography is an art of fragments, so it is especially apt that he ends not with a summary of Nadar’s life but with an appendix in which he offers dozens of brief reflections on the sketches and jokes that the photographer’s clients added to a guest book he kept in his studio, from a few bars of Verdi’s Il trovatore above the composer’s flamboyant signature to two verses written out by the poet Nerval just three months before he hanged himself.
But these aren’t the images most readers will take away with them from this fine book. Instead they are likely to return to Nadar’s love of ballooning, a hobby that allowed him literally to have his head in the clouds. It had practical applications too: during the 1870 siege of Paris, it was Nadar who volunteered to be winched aloft to report on the movements of the Prussian army encircling the city; he also untethered a balloon so that Parisians could send messages to the outside world, launching the first ever airmail service. The invention he described as ‘a bubble of air’ could be transformed into a statement of the city’s defiance as it flew over enemy lines.
The main reason Nadar loved ballooning was that it set his thoughts free. But when he clambered into his huge balloon Le Géant in 1863, he already believed that drifting along with the winds was no longer enough (his aim was to raise money from spectators to fund some form of ‘aero-locomotive’). That became obvious to everyone else when the balloon spectacularly crashed after its crew lost control of it, narrowly missing an oncoming steam train and leaving Nadar’s wife coughing up ‘alarming quantities of blood’. Clearly, if mankind was going to be as free as a bird, what it needed was some way of controlling the speed and direction of its flight.
It is therefore especially poignant that Nadar died in March 1910, just eight months after the French aviator Louis Blériot first crossed the Channel. Nadar sent him a congratulatory telegram. It was the final vindication of the life of a man who had specialised in stopping time but lived long enough to see the future arrive.