Everyone who has dabbled in the lives of Balzac, Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, George Sand, Zola, or almost any minor or major celebrity of the French nineteenth century has taken his view of their personal appearance from the photographs, constantly reproduced, by Nadar. And possibly without knowing that this Bohemian genius was one of the dramatic princes of photography during his long life. Our ignorance is now remedied by Nigel Gosling in a lavish, exhaustive, and very well written book which contains not only scores of Nadar’s portraits, long essays on his life, on his diverting character, and on his work with the camera and in the darkroom, but—since the nature of his sitters meant everything to him—also short and witty comments on their careers. Post-1830 Paris comes to life, Gosling’s scholarship is telling and delightful, and his book is one of the very few works on photography with a knowledgeable text that is quite distinct from the merely decorative letter-press in tasty prose that we are usually given.
Nadar’s talent was exceptional because it grew out of a scientific and technical inventiveness which was fertilized morally by a romantic and radical temperament; as a man, he was rooted in Mürger’s Vie de Bohème, as a professional, in printing, journalism, the drawing of cartoons, and in the theater. In the great century of novelists, playwrights, and scribblers, he became, so to say, a dramatic novelist whose pen was the camera.
Nadar was a bluff red-haired giant with blue eyes whose real name was Tournachon. He was the son of a successful radical printer who had moved his business from Lyon to Paris. The father’s politics were against him, the business went downhill—one remembers the troubles of bankrupt French printers from Balzac’s life and novels in the same period—and the son turned to the feverish semi-starvation of journalism. The revolution of 1848 woke him up politically (he said) and romantically he joined the Polish Legion to rescue Poland from oppression. The venture came to nothing, and he returned to satirical journalism and, having a gift for caricature, went to work in London, which at that time had the finest caricaturists in Europe. There he met Constantin Guys and Doré, and when he returned to Paris he formed the idea of publishing a collection or Pantheon of celebrities for Le Journal Amusant: it was to be called “La Lanterne Magique.” It contained sketches of Doré, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Delacroix, Hugo, and others. He then brought his enormous energies, intelligence, his inventiveness and bursting good nature, almost by chance, to photography in 1853.
The technique which Nadar learned was a new process invented by an Englishman, F. Scott Archer. It was called the “wet plate” technique, and involved coating a glass sheet with collodion, and sensitizing it in a solution of silver nitrate. While the mixture was still wet the plate was exposed to the light in the camera; on the parts most affected …