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The Great Nadar by Adam Begley
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The Great Nadar

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The Great Nadar by Adam Begley
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Jul 10, 2018 | ISBN 9781101902622

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  • Jul 10, 2018 | ISBN 9781101902622

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New York Times Editors’ Choice

“Irresistible. . . . A richly entertaining and thoughtful biography. . . . Begley seems wonderfully at home in the Second Empire, and shifts effortlessly between historical backgrounds, technical explanation, and close-up scenes, brilliantly recreating Nadar at work.” —Richard Holmes, The New York Review of Books

“Concise and thoughtful. . . . Begley delivers a subtle accounting of Nadar’s career as a photographer while reminding us of his subject’s many other talents and exploits. . . . This book, like Nadar’s life, roars past with a whooshing sound.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A delightful biography. . . . It comes across as a labor of love. Yet the word ‘labor’ hardly characterizes the suavity, swiftness and economy of its text. The book is a pleasure to read, though one could almost buy it just for the pictures.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“A window on an era of extraordinary artistic endeavor. . . . Mr. Begley has combed through an array of literature, letters, guest books, invitations, drawings and other miscellany to tease out a nuanced portrait of one of the world’s first celebrity artist-entrepreneurs.” —Tobias Grey, The Wall Street Journal

“A taut, engaging biography. . . . Begley creates a vibrant portrait of Second Empire Paris through one of its most colorful characters.” —The New Yorker

“A short, beguiling book. . . .  Begley writes briskly, jauntily, and affectionately about his subject.”—Michèle Roberts, The Times Literary Supplement

“Masterful. . . . Begley’s vibrant new biography tells Nadar’s story in all its colorful detail. . . . We can be grateful to Begley for capturing some of that quicksilver spirit, that quintessentially Parisian sensibility, which left us with images that are, in their bewitching way, timeless.” —Thad Carhart, Newsday

“A sympathetic and judicious book. . . crammed with character and incident. . . . Nadar was one of the greatest portraitists in photographic history. . . . He would have been very much at home in our day.” —Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review

“If genius is the capacity to astound, then Nadar is up there with the greatest. . . . With this book, Begley . . . puts him back where he truly belongs. . . . Battered into submission by the man’s glorious character, towards the end of this book I arrived at the last known photograph of him—an old man in his garden, a newspaper in his lap. I teared up, realising that Adam Begley had made me love him as much as he evidently does.” —Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times (UK)

“A joy to read. . . . The best part of the book is the ease with which Begley is able to relay the artist’s life story and its many intrigues.”Hyperallergenic

“A superb account of one of the nineteenth century’s most irrepressible spirits. Nadar was the founding genius of photography, especially portraiture, a heroic, disaster-prone balloonist, as well as a journalist, cartoonist, would-be revolutionary and one of the first ‘bohemians’. Adam Begley brilliantly evokes the Paris of the Second Republic and Second Empire, its gloriously impoverished and eccentric artistic milieu, its squalor and political turmoil. Nadar knew everyone and took the photographs of the men and women who defined the era. Here the best work is excellently reproduced and discussed with great sensitivity and insight; from every point of view The Great Nadar is a beautiful book.” —Ian McEwan

“Nadar described himself as a reckless enthusiast, a hyperkinetic presence, every father-in-law’s worst nightmare, someone who ‘never missed an opportunity to talk about rope in a house where someone has been hanged or ought to be hanged.’  That was nowhere near the half of it.  Adam Begley fills in the rest, providing a portrait every bit as seductive as was its irresistible, irrepressible subject.” —Stacy Schiff

“Adam Begley has found the perfect biographical subject in Nadar—an irrepressible artist, a daring pioneer, a wild-eyed visionary, an outrageous self-promoter, and an enfant terrible, who, like some sort of Zelig, seemed to turn up alongside every major figure in Paris during the heady period of the mid-nineteenth century. But what makes this book so mesmerizing is Begley, who, with his own artistry, brings Nadar roaring to life on every page.” —David Grann

“A completely fascinating, thoughtful and most elegantly written biography of one of the great early photographers.” —William Boyd

Author Q&A

Q. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, is practically a legend in France. Yet apart from photography circles, he’s little known in the United States. When did you first encounter Nadar, and what compelled you to write his biography?
A. There was a major show of Nadar’s photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York way back in 1995, and I remember being impressed with his portraits at the time—but then I kind of forgot about him for nearly twenty years, until the summer of 2013, when I read Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a wonderful book, part essay, part short story, part memoir, in which Nadar makes a cameo appearance. Thanks to Barnes, Félix charmed me, as he had charmed so many others. And so I went back to the photographs—and was even more impressed this time—and at last tried to find out something about Nadar’s extraordinary life.
Q. Can you describe the extent of the research you conducted in writing The Great Nadar? What was your most surprising discovery?
A. There are several biographies of Nadar in French, and I read all of those and still needed to know more, so I spent a good deal of time in the national library in Paris, reading Nadar’s extensive correspondence. I read until French nineteenth-century handwriting was as familiar to me as newsprint. And I also read his published writings, including his novel and his short stories and journalism, much of which is very entertaining. I guess what surprised me most was his unflagging energy. He was a dynamo—and stayed that way well into his eighties. The proof of it was there in the library. And his energy wasn’t confined to art. He had a curious compulsion to make a panoramic portrait of his artistic milieu in Paris, as though making a record of the faces of his illustrious contemporaries—from Baudelaire and Manet to Sarah Bernhardt and Victor Hugo—was a matter of life and death. He always kept one eye on posterity; lasting fame, his own and others’, meant everything to him.
Q. You believe that Nadar did more than almost anyone to establish photographic portraiture as an art in its own right. Can you elaborate?
A. I’m not making a novel claim here—historians of photography have praised Nadar as one of the greats for more than half a century. What he did at the dawn of photography—he was born before it was invented—was use it to make a compelling and intimate psychological resemblance. He banished props and backdrops and made you look at a face and really see what kind of person you are looking at. He believed that he was revealing the truth about his subjects, many of whom were celebrities. And Paris, fascinated, rewarded him by making him the most famous photographer in France—which at that time meant he was the most famous photographer in the world. Everyone wanted to sit for Nadar, the way everyone today wants to sit for Annie Leibovitz.
Q. Nadar’s photographs feel so immediate and personal, which for me raises a rather personal question. Which is your favorite of his portraits, and why?
A. Can I choose two? They’re both of Ernestine, Félix’s wife, whom he married in 1854, when he was thirty-four and she only eighteen—nearly half his age. The first portrait probably dates from shortly after they married. (It looks like she’s wearing a wedding ring.) Is the wary, combative expression on her face proof that she already knows Félix too well, and is determined not to be taken in by his charm? The flared nostril and slight squint (her eyes look straight at the camera) could be signs of irritation—or of a teasing skirmish. She could be flirting with him, pretending to be on her guard when in fact she has already willingly surrendered. My guess is that the pose is ironic, compounded of love and comically exaggerated annoyance. The marriage lasted fifty-five years, which speaks for itself. And then there’s a much later portrait: white haired, dark eyed, delicate, and tender, Ernestine holds a sprig of violets to her lips. A stroke she suffered three years earlier has left her partially paralyzed, yet her pose is graceful, serene. In this intimate moment she is a beautiful woman. Roland Barthes called the portrait “one of the loveliest photographs in the world.” It’s easy to see what appealed to him. 
Q: You depict a Parisian cultural world that is wonderfully heterogeneous and close-knit, with painters, poets, novelists, opera singers, and journalists all regularly mingling at salons and
theaters. In what ways do you think this milieu is different from modern celebrity culture?
A. Today’s celebrities are by comparison highly specialized creatures. Often their only talent is for being famous. In Nadar’s day you might be famous as an actress and then quit the stage and become a journalist and a notorious wit, the star of your own salon. A celebrated character like Félix’s great friend Théophile Gautier (who coined the phrase “art for art’s sake”) was a poet, dramatist, novelist, travel writer, art critic, and literary critic. He wrote the scenario for the ballet Giselle. And he could paint. Nadar was also multitalented, and had three careers (writer, caricaturist, photographer), any one of which would have satisfied a less restless and ambitious soul.
Q. Can you discuss Nadar’s other adventures, some of which had nothing to do with the arts?
A. Nadar was obsessed with the idea of human flight, and more particularly aerial navigation, which he realized right away could not be achieved with lighter-than-air balloons. In the early 1860s he founded the Society for the Promotion of Heavier-than-Air Locomotion—in other words, he envisaged modern-day aircraft decades before the Wright brothers. He predicted the ease of movement that aviation would bring: “From all corners of the world, man takes off, prompt like electricity, and soars and descends like a bird at the desired spot.” To raise money for research into heavier-than-air locomotion, he built the biggest gas balloon of its time, The Giant. On her second voyage, The Giant crashed spectacularly (with Félix and Ernestine aboard)—a disaster dramatic enough to earn Nadar newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. He was already famous as a photographer, and now he was famous as an aeronaut.
Q. Did his knack for self-promotion allow him to parlay one success into another, or did his many shoes, as it were, ever trip him up?
A. When Nadar died The New York Times published his obituary under the headline, FAMED BOULEVARDIER DEAD. His scattered, scattershot fame had eclipsed his artistic achievement. It wasn’t until later, when the sheen of his celebrity wore off, that his photographs came to be recognized as great works of art.
Q: Nadar’s livre d’or contains a multitude of fascinating personalities, most of whom I hadn’t
heard of before. Do you have a favorite among the figures from Nadar’s circle who you
discovered while researching the book?
A. Perhaps the oddest page from that autograph album consists of fantastical doodles of grotesque goblins and monsters by a friend of Félix and Baudelaire, Armand du Mesnil, a bureaucrat who worked doggedly in the ministry of education for forty years, all the while yearning for the literary life. The curious du Mesnil doodles include a rabbit-like creature with alarming teeth and claws; running human legs that meet at a crotch that is a face; and a knock-kneed humanoid with the head of a cross-eyed bird. The gothic flavor of the drawings is a reminder that tales of supernatural horror were enormously popular at the time. Baudelaire, the apostle of modernity, was as famous for having translated Edgar Allan Poe as he was for the scandal of Les Fleurs du mal. The daydreams of du Mesnil, the kind-hearted government bureaucrat whose career obliged him to be the servant of the orderly and the rational, were populated with nightmare monsters, surreal creatures crawling out of the unconscious.
Q. What can we learn from Nadar, in the age of Instagram and the selfie?
A. Nadar’s portraits took time, and depended on his charm: he had to make his subject relax to reveal his or her true face. In other words, he could only make a portrait after having established a connection with the sitter. Human interaction—wit, charm, empathy—was at the core of Nadar’s art.

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