|Félix Nadar, Self-Portrait, 1865|
Les Nadars exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale Mittérand is wonderful for its evocation of an era. I am slightly—okay, very—fascinated by this period of French history in particular thanks to its inventions and changes that led to the birth of cinema. Understandably, then for me it was a treat, not only to see the development of the medium of photography from the 1850s through to the 20th century, but to see the cultural who’s who and their haunts of the late nineteenth century in Nadar’s images. Like all the inventors of still and moving photographic images, Felix Nadar didn’t just take photographs, he built a whole world around him. Our contemporary idea of the photographer who goes out into the world and takes photos could not be further from the métier of early inventors such as Nadar. He was an entrepreneur, an engineer, a performer, a salesman, a caricaturist, and he managed to pull everyone in his life into the business. Nadar’s wife, brother, friends and eventually his son, were all central to the development of the Nadar name.
There is a danger that we might look at Nadar’s photographs and see them as conservative portraits of the cultural radicals of the period. His photographs of Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt, Mallarmé and others are well known and their reproductions are still in circulation today as most quoted portraits. But a closer look at the portraits in exhibition reveals how involved Nadar was in the use of the photographic image for the creation of star culture. The display text quotes Félix Nadar claiming that there is an intimacy in the images. However, I wouldn’t call it intimacy so much as an immediacy that results from the photographic process. Indeed, there is an immediacy that would have been totally unimaginable before this moment, an immediacy interpreted as intimacy in the portraits’ capture of a fleeting moment in time. For example, a portrait of Alexandre Dumas shows him laughing, caught in an instant, in a posture that would never have been reproduced in a painting. But this doesn’t make it intimate, especially given the emphasis on performance that is clearly alive in this and other images.
|Nadar, Victor Hugo on his deathbed, 1875|
Others show the sitter posing and performing for the camera, and still other photographs are very carefully staged. For example, Eugène Delacroix sits still and has a very stiff posture in an image that does the very opposite of give away anything of the man’s inner life. Perhaps in the mid-nineteenth century the portraits expressed intimacy, but through today’s eyes, they are all about a nineteenth-century realism that was the basis of the developing medium. It is a realism that finds its fullest articulation in Nadar’s photographs.
|Félix Nadar, Marie Laurent de dos, c. 1856|
As the century wears on, and as we move around the exhibition, the photographs show Nadar’s increasing expertise with the manipulation of light. Until the point where Victor Hugo on his deathbed is the most exquisite example of an image crafted through light. Every hair on the corpse’s beard is shot with a clarity given it by the refined and skillful use of a fill light. It is as though the old man is brought back to life by the medium of photography. That said, his use of the medium as an artform begins early on. For example, we think of the radicality of a portrait shot of the sitter from behind, and here in 1856, in the photograph of Marie Laurent de dos, Nadar shoots the most exquisite portrait showing the woman’s bare upper back and neck. It is erotic, suggestive and beautiful.
|Nadar Studio @ 35 Boulevard des Capucines,|
Also, on exhibition are the photographs of Nadar’s studios on the Boulevard des Capucines and in the rue d’Anjou, locations that are in the centre of the literary and artistic world of nineteenth-century Paris. The multi-storey atelier at 35 boulevard des Capucines shot from both inside and out is a whole world of discovery and possibility, filled with exotic plants, props, people and stages. Similarly, his early hot air balloons enabling previously unimaginable bird’s eye views over Paris are a discovery for anyone interested in the period. We see his fascination for science, medicine, hot air balloons and railways—Nadar using the camera to engage with all the miracles of his time.
Lastly, there are works on display that are treasures in the history of photography in their own way, by his brother and son. Félix Nadar’s son, Paul, in particular, contributed to the developments of the instruments of photography, by producing the apparatus needed to democratize the medium. He designed lighter cameras and less cumbersome processing methods to enable the camera to move outside of the studio and document modern life. But it is Félix Nadar with all his energy, and obvious sense of the importance of his discoveries that steals the show at the BnF.