Book Review: The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera

January 29th, 2018 by David Cobb

“In photography, as everywhere, there are those who know how to see and others who don’t even know how to look . . .” – Felix Nadar

Part artist and part PT Barnum, Felix Nadar was one of history’s early famous photographers. Born in 1820, he photographed everybody who was anybody in Paris at the time: Manet, Hugo, Baudelaire, Dumas. These photographic portraits were his art, but he was also a bungling balloonist, the first aerial photographer, the first to deliver airmail, a cartoonist, a writer, and a poster boy for the description of a “bohemian.” In The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera (2017 Tim Duggan Books), author Adam Begley captures in just under 200 pages the photographer’s energy, eccentricities, and the spirit of his life. 

Nadar took his first look through the lens of a camera in 1848—and he was hooked. That year there were only 13 professional photographers in Paris, and by 1868 there were 350. Photography’s first boom was termed “photomania.” The author writes: “They engaged in mysterious hocus-pocus and sometimes peddled shoddy, blurred images for which they overcharged,” so things haven’t changed much in the past 150 years. Nadar was ahead of the game. Having been a portrait artist for numerous newspapers, photography came easily to him. He also had a wealth of contacts, and he knew the celebrity culture.  More importantly, he was a wonderful photographer. 

Supported by his wife, Nadar sprinted into his new profession—not always with complete success. A lack of business acumen kept Nadar continually in debt, so he constantly chased the “next big thing.” (After photography, that thing was ballooning.)

In the book’s later chapters author Begley truly captures the adventurous spirit of Nadar. He took his debt, impulsiveness, and devil-may-care attitude right into the field of ballooning. Important advances were being made in the area of flight at that time, and ballooning was an exciting new novelty. Nadar didn’t have the money for this new sport, but that wasn’t about to stop him. He would take friends and family out for balloon adventures, even though he didn’t have the landing part down quite yet. If guests ended up bloody or with broken limbs then so be it. 

Attempting to marry his two passions, Nadar began to experiment with aerial photography, using his big box camera and learning through trial and error. Later when the Bavarian armies besieged Paris, this photographer hero would fly over them and report back troop movements; or fly away and deliver intelligence reports and mail via the air.

If only every photographer’s life could be as interesting and exciting as that of Felix Nadar. He was part Evil Knievel and part Andy Warhol, but he is mostly remembered through his fantastic photography. Exhibitions of his work have been held in recent years at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (The book includes numerous images, drawings, and more.)

I highly recommend this book about Nadar, as an addition to your photographic library, and as an intriguing read into life of one of photography’s true pioneering heroes.

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