Luftmensch in Paris

When I Was a Photographer

by Félix Nadar, translated from the French by Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou
MIT Press, 274 pp., $25.95
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Félix Nadar with his wife, Ernestine, in a balloon, circa 1865

At 10:46 PM on December 1, 1865, the American Baltimore Gun Club launched the first successful moonshot from an underground site in Tampa, Florida. The spacecraft, a twelve-foot aluminum capsule weighing 19,250 pounds, achieved lunar orbit seventy-two hours later. Among the crew of three was a remarkable Frenchman named Michel Ardan.

A contemporary description has survived of this memorable character. Ardan was over six feet tall, with a “leonine mane” of unlikely red hair, immensely long legs, a “combative” manner, and much “gesticulating” talk. He bubbled with wild ideas and original observations, restless energy, and ceaseless boyish enthusiasms: “This astonishing man…had not yet passed the age of superlatives…he saw everything larger than life except difficulties…he was a dare-devil…an Icarus with a pair of spare wings.” He also had a genius for self-publicity, and by the time of the launch over half a million copies of Ardan’s photograph, “printed in all formats from life-size to the tiny dimensions of a postage stamp,” had been circulated in newspapers and magazines across the whole American continent.

Of course all this is fiction. It comes from Jules Verne’s early science adventure novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865). But the “astonishing” Ardan was based closely on fact. He is an accurate portrait, both physically and psychologically, and one is tempted to say sociologically, of a real historical figure: Félix Nadar (1820–1910). Nadar never quite went to the moon like Ardan, but he flew very high indeed.

Lightly disguised under the anagram, the original long-legged, red-haired, rumbustious Nadar was one of the phenomena of the French Second Empire. The poet Charles Baudelaire described him as “the most astonishing expression of vitality” and speculated that he must have a double set of “vital organs.” Victor Hugo sent him letters from abroad addressed simply “Nadar, Paris.” In 1867 Alfred Delvau gave him an entire chapter in his celebrity survey, Les Lions du Jour, asking, “Who doesn’t know Nadar, in Paris, in France, in Europe?” In 1994–1995 the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dedicated an exhibition and a magnificent catalog to his life and work.

Even so, Nadar remains curiously elusive, in his alarming multiplicity of talents. He was a journalist, a caricature artist, and a photographer, but also a reckless balloonist, a risky business entrepreneur, a romantic republican, an unreliable memoir-writer, and a relentless self-publicist. He lived to be nearly ninety, always up to date and always insisting that the three essential expressions of modernism were “photography, electricity, and aeronautics.” A few months before his death he wrote to Louis Blériot congratulating him on being the first to fly not around the moon but across the English Channel.

Both Ardan and Nadar had the same motto: Quand même! This is an…

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