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 banned by the minister of the interior, in 1854. Also in 1854 Nadar married a nicely dowered eighteen-year-old Protestant from Normandy and with a friend’s help set up his unemployed younger brother, Adrien, in a photography studio on the boulevard des Capucines. With the advent of the collodion-on-glass negative and the paper print, the speed and ease of photography had greatly increased, and the number of photographers in Paris shot up. adrien, who aspired to be a painter, learned the technical fundamentals quickly from the well-named Gustave Le Gray. But by the end of the year the studio was failing, and Nadar stepped in to save it, absorbing the basics by the way. Thus sideslippingly a great photographer was born.
He began to practice in his house on the rue Saint-Lazare, using the sunlit garden as a studio and friendly fellow artists as subjects. He was a staunch Republican (in the French sense) and worked best with people he admired, either politically or artistically. He took his time with each session, establishing rapport with the subject and adjusting the reflectors with which he lovingly manipulated the natural light to produce chiaroscuro effects akin to those of Rembrandt and Van Dyck. In a description of his photographic artistry (bellicosely framed in a legal combat with his brother):
What can’t be learned, I will tell you: it’s the sense of light, it’s the artistic appreciation of the effects produced by different and combined qualities of light…
What can be learned still less is the moral intelligence of your subject, it’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model…
What also can’t be learned is integrity of work: in a genre as delicate as portraiture, it’s zeal, the search, an indefatigable perseverance in the relentless pursuit of the best.
He was a bohemian snob, whose abjuration of furniture and trappings distinguished his work from the cluttered style of studios catering to the bourgeoisie, and who sometimes draped his subjects in costumes of a picturesque informality. Yet during the 1850s he not only made great portraits but made money; he charged as much as a hundred francs for the privilege of a sitting, no doubt adjusting this downward for worthy acquaintances like Baudelaire, Gautier, Berlioz, Michelet, Daumier, and Delacroix. There was a commercial cunning as well as a romanticism to his elitist standards; Elizabeth Anne McCauley, in her excellent Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848–1871,* titles her chapter on Nadar “Nadar and the Selling of Bohemia.” His austere, unhurried approach was “appreciated,” she writes, “by sitters who cared to be different,” including some from the aristocracy.
Adrien Tournachon—“erratic, querulous, boastful,” a wall caption tells us—was an embarrassment to Nadar and remains one to Nadar scholars. For some months the brothers operated the boulevard des Capucines studio together, and a number of the finest photographs, including a spectacular series of the seventeen-year-old mime Charles Deburau dressed in the voluminous white clown costume of Pierrot, are signed by Adrien, as “Nadar jeune.” The “jeune” became a barely discernible “jne” and the original Nadar, after a year of contention, sued to get his pseudonym back. Françoise Heilbrun, in her essay on the photographs in the handsome, essay-laden exhibition catalog, protests rather too much that no photograph of genius could be by Adrien, even when stamped by him and in his characteristic format. “To my mind, however, the picture can essentially be attributed to Félix,” she writes in one instance, and of the beautiful Pierrot series says they were “clearly” “taken in collaboration with his brother.” Well, couldn’t even Adrien have got lucky for a second? Might the brothers’ brief collaboration not have been a two-way street, even though Adrien never succeeded on his own, abandoned his studio in 1860, and died in a mental hospital?
From 1855 to 1860 is the brief heyday of Nadar aîné as a hands-on, eyes-on photographer. In 1860, after his mother had died in the house on the rue Saint-Lazare, he bought out his brother’s equipment and built himself a two-story glass atelier atop a building on the boulevard des Capucines, adorned with his giant, gaslit signature. But the bourgeois clients he needed to attract, and the oval vignettes and little cartes de visite they expected, bored him, and he left the day-to-day work to his staff, lending his superb personal touch to rare sitters like George Sand and Sarah Bernhardt, in the mid-1860s. He continued to cut a figure in Paris, however, pioneering photography by electric light in the catacombs and sewers of Paris and then aerial photography, taking shots of Paris from balloons. A great admirer of modern inventions, he managed, at ruinous cost, to construct—from twelve miles of silk!—the largest balloon in the world, called Le Géant, which he launched from a number of European capitals. Of balloon flight he rhapsodized:
Free, calm, levitating into the silent immensities of welcoming, beneficent space, where no human force, no power of evil can reach him, a man seems to feel himself really living for the first time, rejoicing in a sense of spiritual and bodily well-being of a fullness never before known.
As early as the early 1870s, Nadar was letting his son Paul run the studio, now moved to the rue d’Anjou. He wrote a number of reminiscences in his high-flown, adjectival style and, the year before he died, sent a telegram of congratulation to Louis Blériot, the first man to fly the English Channel. Under the management of Paul and Nadar’s wife, Ernestine, the firm turned a profit on its great name but produced commonplace work. Paul died in 1939 and during the war the Nadar archives were pillaged by collectors. Only recently has the immense task been undertaken of sifting from the great mass of Nadar Studio plates and prints the precious images, often preserved in a single paper proof print run up for the customer’s inspection, which Nadar captured in his brief period of creativity.
He was, in short, a restless, dabbling, flamboyant spirit, who could have found great distinction in perhaps no art save photography. A photographic portrait is a matter of interaction; the photographer’s animation and charm spread to the sitter. Rossini’s pouchy eyes glint with amusement; Michelet seems to be biting back an apt riposte on the tip of his tongue; the vaudevillian Pierre-Alfred Ravel is so amused his face is blurred a bit out of focus. A cocky sense of confrontation sparks the faces of Dumas père and the famous clown Kopp. The poets are hauntingly vivid: Gérard de Nerval, who will commit suicide within a year of his portrait, gazes directly into the lens with a moist stare, and Baudelaire, in a pair of very different exposures, displays, standing, a frantic edge and then, seated, a handsome, intelligent repose. The four photographs of Daumier are especially electric, in the unmediated clarity with which the man stands close before us, his stocky build, swaddled in a featureless black coat, topped by a half-illumined face shockingly modern in its weary alertness and nervous preoccupation. He seems truly to have forgotten he is being photographed, no small feat in a time when the fastest exposures were over a second in length. We feel a leap between this tousled, acute, unsmiling presence and the rotund crayonned forms of his human satire. As a rule Nadar’s photographs are chastely untheatrical; and the ones that do attempt a dramatic gesture—those of Charles Couderc and Jean Journet, for instance—are the ones that appear dated.
The dignity of Nadar’s method irradiates his dozen or so pictures of women. There is no obvious prettifying, and no playful condescension. In an age and country that did not hide its erotic exploitation of the female underclass from which artists’ models were generally drawn, Nadar allows women of this class the same grave inwardness as the writers and upperclass wives. The photo of a nameless model “brought,” it is noted on the back, to Nadar’s studio by the boulevardier Louis Lherminier, contains a challenging and composed gaze beneath the spectacular spread of unbound hair; the wall and catalog commentary permits itself a leer (she “has undone her hair and perhaps much else”) but the photographer does not leer at all.
The body does not much interest him; the small semi-draped figure titled “Mimi” is quite ethereal and distant, though the commentary insists, “the easy attitude of the woman’s pale, thin body and her beguiling regard confirm her membership in the eternal sorority of Mimis.” That is, she is a whore. But the dignity and facial piquancy of the two photos of the black model Maria silence comment, though one pose shows her “opulent breasts.” In the only total nude in the catalog (not in the show) Nadar makes the frontal figure a twisted column of light, an Ingres translated into flesh. The model has been permitted or instructed to cover her face with her arm, a discretion also observable in the clinical shot of a hermaphrodite taken in 1860.
Not that Nadar has no capacity for glamorization: his “Young woman in profile” is stratlingly beautiful, as his image of Aimé Millet is romantically handsome; photographs of the onyxeyed young Sarah Bernhardt, of Marie Laurent from the back, and of the aging but jauntily posed singer Rosine Stoltz all show the willingness to let women present themselves to advantage. Indeed, throughout, Nadar’s photographs to a remarkable degree express the kindness and warmth of the photographer: a fruit, perhaps, of his independence in his first years as a photographer, when celebrity had not commercialized his name.
Even those who possess the excellent catalog with its big illustrations should see the show itself. The photographs—some smaller, some bigger than reproduced, and some considerably milkier than in the catalog—have a tone and a dimension that the most scrupulous five-color reproduction cannot capture. Only a viewing of the real prints delivers a sharp sense, in the finger-smudges and chemical spatters, of a precarious process and a precarious survival. These little, irregularly cut pieces of paper—big prints for their time—were pulled, many only once, from negatives now lost or deteriorated beyond use. Even if the negatives were perfectly preserved, Ulrich Keller points out in his catalog essay, modern photographic technology, with its “harsh, high-contrast prints” could not reproduce the “soft, transparent complexion” of Nadar’s salted-paper prints. On file for decades, these prints were saved in part by Nadar’s own solicitude for his artistic prime, and were marked in his sometimes shaky hand with the name of the sitter. By the time of his labeling a whole vanished era lived in them, lit by the flare of his brief brilliance.
May 25, 1995