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Sep 12, 2017 9:24 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Book Review: 'The Great Nadar' Is A Fascinating And Elegant Biography

Sep 12, 2017 10:52 AM

In his new book, “The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera,” (Tim Duggan Books, $28, 248pp), Adam Begley quotes a French biographer of Nadar, who asks, “Who does not know Nadar?” To which a 21st century American might reply, “Who is Nadar?”There have been three French biographies of Nadar, but none in English. Mr. Begley has corrected that omission with this biography. Mr. Begley is the son of novelist Louis Begley and stepson of historian Anka Muhlstein of Sagaponack. He has dedicated “Nadar” to them. Mr. Begley was the former books editor of the New York Observer and the author of an excellent biography of John Updike. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fellowship at the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

The Paris-born Nadar was originally Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, but he adopted his pseudonym when he began to associate with the creative bohemians of the city. He worked intermittently as a journalist, novelist, cartoonist and caricaturist. He rubbed elbows with some of the great artists of 19th century France. A neighbor was Henri Murger, author of “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème,” which was the basis for Puccini’s opera “La Bohème.” The quarter was populated by women of easy virtue, or as one of his friends said, who “were likely to lead you quickly and directly to the definitive goal of all human existence.” Nadar was an editor and columnist, and founded his own magazine, “The Book of Gold.”

Nadar is chiefly remembered today for two things. He was first and foremost a pioneer in the art of photography, an art that didn’t even exist when he was born. He was also a balloonist.

He was a portrait photographer—the Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz of his day. At his best, his portraits seem to discover the inner life of his subjects. They have a psychological depth that barely seems possible. His photographs chronicle the cultural life of mid-19th century France. They are a visual who’s who of the time. His subjects, of whom there are thousands, include a young Sarah Bernhardt, before she was known as “The Divine Sarah.” Victor Hugo is a subject, not only in the fullness of his life, but also on his death bed. Nadar did many portraits of his friend George Sand, of Gèrard de Nerval, of Gustave Courbet and of Edouard Manet. There are simply too many to list. One of the most touching is a late picture of Ernestine, his wife of 55 years. She is white haired and paralyzed on one side. She holds a sprig of violets to her mouth. It is beautiful, tender and quite peaceful. The critic Roland Barthes said of it, that it was “one of the loveliest photographs in the world.”

But the energetic and restless Nadar soon found a new obsession—ballooning. The first hot air balloon was built by the Montgolfier brothers in 1787. From the moment that Nadar saw a balloon rise up in the sky he was transfixed.

Says Mr. Begley, “One of the most famous early aeronauts, Eugène Godard, set up shop at the Hippodrome, a racecourse and fairground … [H]e and his family sold balloon rides to members of the public brave enough to defy gravity and rich enough to afford a ticket.” Nadar describes his experience of a balloon ride thus: “And here I am up in the air, every pore delighting in this infinite sensual pleasure, unique to flight.”

In no time at all he learned how to fly a balloon and he set out to outdo all other practitioners of the art. He built the largest balloon ever made until that point. It was called “Le Gèant” (The Giant). It was 12 stories high. The balloon was luxurious. Mr. Begley describes the great balloon. “Le Gèant’s gondola was a little house made of wicker, a cabin with a half-dozen separate compartments, including kitchen and lavatory.” It also contained a printing press and a dark room.

Unfortunately, it crashed spectacularly in Germany. Fortunately, no one died, although all the passengers were injured. It created headlines world-wide. Nadar realized from his experience that the future of flight was not with the balloon, which could not be successfully steered. He recognized with a remarkable prescience that what was required was a heavier-than-air machine, possibly with a propeller to steer it.

Though Nadar’s attempts at ballooning created a great deal of contemporary attention, it is his photography that is his great gift to posterity.

Mr. Begley has added an appendix in which he lists the various notables who visited Nadar’s studio and quotes from the comments left by them in the studio’s guestbook.

He has written a fascinating and elegant book. It is so good as to bear rereading, not least for the wonderful Nadar portraits that he has included.

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