Simanaitis Says

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FÉLIX NADAR WAS a 19th-century pioneer French photographer, but so much more. Like others, he did a lot of studio work, society portraits and the like. But Nadar also soared above Paris in a balloon and probed its dark depths with early electric illumination. He was also a talented artist with caricature his speciality.

I learned about Nadar from “Photomania,” by Emilie Bickerton, in the London Review of Books, November 22, 2018. Bickerton reviews The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, by Adam Begley.

The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera, by Adam Begley, Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Here are tidbits gleaned from Bickerton’s review and my usual Internet sleuthing, enough for Parts 1 and 2, today and tomorrow.

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, nom de plume, Nadar, 1820–1910, French photographer, caricaturist, novelist, balloonist. Self-portait, c. 1860.

Nadar the Caricaturist. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon was born in Paris in 1820. After his father’s death in 1837, Gaspard became the breadwinner for his mother and younger brother Adrien by working as a journalist.

He had an artistic talent for caricature as well and his sketches of Parisian notables appeared in the likes of the Journal Pour Rire, Newspaper For Laughs. It was at this time that Tournachon assumed his nom de plume Nadar.

A highpoint of his career as a caricaturist is the Panthéon Nadar, two gigantic lithographs, 45 in. x 32 in., portraying 250 personages. Among those shown are Victor Hugo (who wrote Les Misérables), Honoré de Balzac (a founder of realism in European literature) and George Sand (a Chopin girlfriend). I believe Nadar is the guy with the skinny legs in striped stockings, just to the right of the sign.

Le Panthéon Nadar, produced by Nadar in 1854. This image is from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Will the Real Nadar Please Stand Up. Nadar was a pioneer in photography. In 1851, he was perhaps one of the inventors of the wet collodion process, a developing technique giving enhanced detail. (Englishman Fredrick Scott Archer and Frenchman Gustave Le Gray are also credited with the discovery.)

In 1854, Félix encouraged his younger brother Adrien to open a photography studio, though both were to regret it when Adrien also adopted the Nadar moniker. Bickerton writes, “Adrien’s flooding the market with sub-Nadars was unacceptable to Félix, who took his brother to court and won; the ruling confirmed that he was ‘the only, the true Nadar.’ ”

Nadar and the Catacombs. Nadar, the only, the true Nadar, was the first person to take a photograph in the absence of daylight; this, in the catacombs beneath Paris. These catacombs were abandoned quarries, then serving double duty as burial sites as Paris’s cemeteries became overcrowded.

For artificial illumination, Nadar used dozens of Bunsen batteries. These were cumbersome and fragile jars containing acid and metal, producing less than two volts each, emitting noxious fumes, and lasting only until the acid weakened.

One of Nadar’s photographs of the catacombs of Paris. The worker is a mannequin.

Exposure times were about 18 minutes, so Nadar posed mannequins as catacomb workers. He also took one self-portrait: “He must have held fairly still,” Bickerton says, “his face is only slightly blurred—but although he was ‘trying to look nonchalant,’ Bagley writes, ‘instead he looks louche and a trifle irritated.’ ”

Tomorrow, by contrast, we’ll see Nadar positively elated in the opposite direction, soaring above Paris in balloons, including one appropriately name Le Géant. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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