Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, FRENCH pioneer photographer Félix Nadar explored the depths of the catacombs of Paris. Today in Part 2, he soars high above the city, still with camera in hand.

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

My primary source is the London Review of Books, November 22, 2018, and its “Photomania” review by Emilie Bickerton of Adam Begley’s The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera.

And great he certainly was, excelling in journalism, caricature, photography, ballooning, and, it’s said, self-promotion.

Ballooning and Wet Collodion Photography. Nadar was enamored of the view captured in flight, a “planisphere,” he called it, “Everything is in focus.” An ardent balloonist, he was the first to photograph from the air, using his wet collodion process to prepare and develop images while aloft.

Nadar’s first aerial view of Paris: Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, with Montmartre in the distance, as seen from about 1700 ft. Image from

Nadar’s initial attempts at aerial photography failed until he realized that the balloon’s gas interfered with the photochemistry of the wet collodion process. He devised a means of protecting the plates and, in 1858, exhibited the first aerial views of Paris.

Nadar’s Le Géant. In 1863, Nadar commissioned balloonist Eugène Godard to construct a gigantic balloon, appropriately named Le Géant. Inflated, it stood 196 ft. tall and contained 210,000 cu. ft. of gas. It required nearly 22,000 yards of silk for its two concentric envelopes. Observes LRB author Binkerton, “Begley reports that the work was done ‘by an army of seamstresses stitching away in a rented dancehall.’ ”

Suspended below, Le Géant had a two-story wicker cabin with six compartments, bunk beds, a photography darkroom, and, being French, a wine cellar.

Though extended trips were envisioned, the first flight of Le Géant, in October 1863, was only a few miles. It lifted off from the Champs de Mars, destined to be home of the Eiffel Tower, where a hundred thousand people paid admission of one franc apiece. Three and a half hours later, Le Géant set down in a field on the outskirts of Paris.

Apparently, a control valve had been inadvertently left open.

Not that its second flight was without adventure. Even Napoleon III showed up at the Champs de Mars launch, but, as Binkerton describes, “This time Le Géant managed 16 hours and four hundred miles before descending rapidly and, caught in a gale, careering across the ground for half an hour, cabin and passengers smashing against the ground, rearing back up into the air again and again, before finally come to rest, its nine passengers jettisoned with various injuries, in the countryside near Hanover.”

A newspaper illustration of Catastrophe du Ballon Le Géant. The guy holding on for dear life in the lower corner looks like Nadar.

Balloonist Enthusiasm Persists. Nadar continued as a balloonist. In 1864, he took Le Géant to Brussels, where mobile barriers kept spectators at a safe distance. To this day, Belgian crowd-control structures are known as Nadar barriers.

During the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870–1871, Nadar organized balloon flights establishing the world’s first airmail service.

A studio-produced self-portrait.

Nadar’s Flight Prescience. Though he liked ballooning, Nadar also sensed the importance of what he called “the sainted Propeller.” In 1863, he formed La Société Pour la Promotion de la Locomotion Aérienne au Moyen d’Appareils Plus Lourds que l’Air, The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier-than-Air Machines. Nadar served as its president; the organization’s secretary was his pal and fellow author Jules Verne. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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