Nadar 14-July 9, 1995
Photography is a matter of time. The time of exposure is part of a photograph’s credentials, and from even mediocre photographs flows the uncanny power of temporal authenticity: things looked this way at one certain moment in the past, a moment now irrevocably gone. Painting, for all its documentary value, has little such power, only an idealizing Platonic strength: the heroic age of American politics ended when, beginning with William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, presidents could be photographed, in all their warty imperviousness to the glamorization of brush strokes. We trust the camera—mechanical, dispassionate, mindless—but not the painter, who inevitably has some kind of myopia or an axe to grind.
And yet photographers tend to burn out, at the level which generates enduring quality in a medium so copious. A peculiar kind of intensity must function behind the lens, along with a lucky tilt from the Zeitgeist. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910), known professionally as Nadar, devoted rather little of his long and busy life to being a portrait photographer, but the six years in which he seriously practiced this fledgling profession have secured him posterity’s acclaim and a contemporary show of one hundred photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The son of a Lyons printer and publisher who moved to Paris three years before Félix was born, Nadar, as he called himself after 1838, underwent a bourgeois education until 1836, when he was expelled for unruly behavior from the Collège Bourbon. The following year, his father’s death reduced the family fortune, though Félix briefly attended medical school in Lyons. By 1838 he was back in Paris, and had soon dropped out of medical studies and had joined the large population of struggling young writers who tried to extract a living from the welter of ephemeral magazines; he helped edit one of the more luxurious journals, Livre d’or, until it consumed the inheritance of its young patron and folded. The poor “water-drinkers” of the Latin Quarter and their female companions led “la vie de Bohème,” which was rendered famous in the series of articles written in the mid-1840s by Nadar’s friend Henri Murger, and a half-century later turned by Puccini into grand opera.
As a caricaturist, Nadar was no Daumier but as good as many who wielded this once widespread skill. As a writer, he was fluent and lively but lacked, perhaps, that devotion to reality in its exact details which characterizes literary masters. Six feet tall, redhaired, gregarious, self-promoting, and cheerfully enterprising, he not only practiced art but became a kind of culture vulture, a highly sociable head collector who claimed to enjoy five thousand friendships among Paris’s cultural elite and who had a genuine, disarmingly selfless gift of admiration. He conceived of an ambitious caricatural “pantheon” of one thousand writers and artists of the day, in four giant posters to be sold for twenty francs apiece, and completed only one, which sold a mere 136 copies and was then …