PRINT September 1976

Nadar and the Republic of Mind

DURING THE MIDDLE OF the last century, the two best-known photographers doing business in Paris were Disdéri, who popularized the carte-de-visite, and Félix Tournachon, whose nickname, Nadar, became as familiar in his time as Kodak in ours. Portraits were the cash crop of both their studios, as for many others, because the portrait mode enjoyed artistic prestige and huge market turnover.

Let’s define a portrait as the picture of an individual or group whose character is either described by social, ethnic, and class affiliations, or may, in some measure, be invoked in contrast to them. Sometimes, in the history of the genre, the “personality” of the sitter has gained the upper hand, and sometimes, his or her status. More often, the portrait turns out to be an unpredictable composite image of both. Now, in the business milieu of the Second Empire, an important new motif got introduced into portraits. You can see by their clothes and stance that people rendered homage to a then grand ideal—Progress.

A marvelous index of progress was speed, the increased rapidity with which things could get done, and space could be traversed. One has only to look at that great public castle or temple, the 19th-century railroad station, to see how arrivals and departures—mass movement, in short—were glorified. And wasn’t the photograph itself a characteristic witness of the age’s lust for accelerated record and communication, power and efficiency? What once took weeks or months to limn by hand could now be accomplished in minutes, mechanically. And so urgent was the need for progress that photographic exposures were reduced to seconds. Time, in 1860, was burning up.

Cartes-de-visite, postcard-size portraits, were cranked out by means of a new multiple-lens camera with consecutively releasable shutters, furnishing as many as six or eight different exposures on a single plate. Like the Gatling gun of 1862, its aim was decrease the ratio of effort to output by mechanizing the product. Poses could be standardized, droves of assistants could be hired, and sales volume could be increased. Photographic studios came to be very lavish affairs, like terminals, palaces of art. Disdéri’s was built on a fortune parlayed through engineering a rationalized technique at the most opportune moment.

As for Nadar, he grew out of caricature, a graphic mode living by its wits in the popular press. The merits of caricature were briskness and dash, as they seized on the essentials of a face or a scene.

Its essence is realism . . . but reality given the twist of derision: a kind of poor man’s Baroque . . it realized that its task was to cater to the insatiable curiosity of the new mass audience, to capture the event on everybody’s mind and lips today and forgotten tomorrow; in short, the topical . . . all this by a graphic technique ever more rapid, more elliptic—that it . . . ends in the instantane. (Pierre Schneider)

Nadar’s life kept apace with his trade, con brio. There was considerable truth in his record as an adventurer, political radical, harebrained inventor, novelist and crony of the entire French world of letters and arts.

The portraits of these two photographers, then, were absorbed into the gravitational field of progress, however differently they were articulated. And the values of such progress worked a great deal to disrupt the social presentation of the human being in art. The poor creature was caught in a crossfire between the memorial aims of the image, which were essentially realist, and its type-casting function, which was definitely symbolic. Since the carte-de-visite operated as a fashion plate, the whole question of its truthfulness was mooted from the very first. Everyone was simply leveled, more or less interchangeably, to the role of actors in a charade. But it’s much more interesting to think of the problem when a caricaturist took up the camera.

If he hankered after the topical, an ever fugitive present, his means often restricted him to the schematic. In coming to photography, Nadar’s work betrayed a whiff of the schematic, that is, a single social idea assigned to a single person. But though it works much faster than a pencil, a photograph also gives far more information, more passively, more waywardly. A portrait photograph imparts meaning by a false sufficiency which we call the person’s appearance . . . at a certain moment. An element of chance enters into the dialogue between photographer and model—chance, initially in what is recorded, and secondly, in how it may be interpreted.

The identity of a figure may not, therefore, emerge quite as intended. A middle-aged gentleman, in checkered vest, has a relaxed and sympathetic demeanor. The folds of his day coat are elegantly crisped, worthy of an Ingres. Between him and the photographer we automatically project an easy rapport. The image displays a certain hands-in-the-pocket aplomb long associated with Nadar’s modernity. But on the back of this picture Nadar pencils “Dagneaux . . Mouchard [spy, parasite] . . . Police Imperiale.” We do not expect a ferocious Republican to discover urbanity in a policeman. I suppose we can argue that this discord is token of a real-life situation, and that it would have been naive to think otherwise. For it’s an illusion to imagine that character, whatever that may be, and expression reciprocally illuminate each other, or that a repressive official can’t be a loving grandfather. But M. Dagneaux’s “image” is the antithesis of the one the photographer privately declares.

Of course, the same conflict may occur even when we know him to be sympathetic to the model. How, for instance, do we respond to Nadar’s photo of Gerard de Nerval? “Our dreams,” wrote Nerval in Aurelia,

are a second life. . . . The first moments of sleep are an image of death; a hazy torpor grips our thoughts and it becomes impossible for us to determine the exact instant when the “I,” under another form, continues the task of existence.

This mystic and dreamy poet, reader of Swedenborg and the Cabala, a confirmed eccentric and finally a mad suicide, was beloved by Proust, Apollinaire, and the Surrealists. Nadar shows us a small, round, bald-headed plebian, seemingly a lump-faced butcher or at best a bailiff, whose figure we have to equate with that of a dandy once capable of walking a lobster with a pale blue ribbon through the Palais Royal because “lobsters knew the secrets of the deep.” For Nadar it was a “saddening photograph” which rendered “neither the simplicity, nor the finesse, nor the charm of the model.” And Nerval thought it was his likeness, well enough, but posthumous: “I am the other.”

For the artist and his sitter, the image was unreal because devoid of life. But we needn’t let it go at that. This particular portrait has recently been re-dated, from a couple of weeks to about two years before the poet’s death. Such information, when available, must influence the way we speculate about the photographic cipher. The knowledge may lighten some of the fatigue we think we see in the poet’s face, but I don’t think it weakens its indelible presence. Nadar, though powerfully engaged in the present, has sensitized himself to that “second life,” that “I under another form,” which “continues the task of existence.”

If 19th-century people experienced considerable physical strain in posing for longish exposures, there was less self-consciousness in their stance because they either accepted or shared the values of the photographers. They incarnated distinct ideas of authority and class with which the artistic pretensions of the photographers were absorbed. South-worth’s and Hawes’ Daniel Webster (1850) is acousin of Ingres’ M. Bertin, but with too small a waistcoat pulled tight over his girth, and far more tensility in the bolt-upright pose. For their part, Julia Cameron’s Herschel, Tennyson, and Darwin all form up as a gentlewoman’s visions of patriarchal wisdom, but not interchangeably, and with intense drama. Her closely seen young women, on the other hand, often look sorrowful or hardpressed, despite having been cast as willowy damsels. As often as not, these figures were garbed in robes, or their bodies, minus all gesture, were made to dissolve in shadow, the better to invoke a stoicism that radiated beyond their physical frailty.

But whether it be in the work of this amateur, using her friends to exposit genteel-virtue, or in the output of straight commercial portraitist’s, the locale of the figure was always problematic. The studio, functionally, was a non-environment whose neutrality could be accentuated or partially and affectedly reconstructed. A model had no choice but to be situated in a limbo, whole zones of which went occasionally out of focus, including those invariable re-used sawed-off columns and corner drapes, sad and debased props that exuded all the dignity of a half-removed stage set for a third-run play. In no other photographic genre were the subjects necessarily less at home than in the formalized portrait. Peopling such threadbare scenes, with their schematic decor, the figure was not only alienated, but deprived of any potential for natural movement.

These were the norms under which Nadar operated. They are to be seen assimilated but, fromthe first, profoundly modified by his work. Thereafter they continued, though overtly demoted, provincialized, and made vulnerably innocent in their pretension. Portraits in their mode were now more likely to commemorate members of aspiring rather than established social groups. Like Cameron in purging the studio of most background objects, he also associated with distinguished artist peers, at the very pulse of their culture. Beyond this, all resemblance between the two photographers ends.

His sitters adopt any mien they will and disport themselves without script in an unarticulated space against which they profile their figures and display their energies. The environment within the photo is something they either command or displace, with whatever animation they think appropriate to the pose. For they appear to be responding far more to the photographic act than they are merely enduring it. And their reflexes, under the circumstances, become its subject. Not for one minute does this openness banish role-playing from the occasion, but you feel that it is a role or a style that has been individually assumed rather than performed for the sake of external reasons. A good deal of pressure and strangeness has been lost as a result of these laissez-faire conditions, but much spontaneity has been gained. Instead of wondering about the peculiar obsession behind the camera, the spectator is invited to empathize with the newly readable psychological complexities in those seated or standing before it. The more familiarity gained of Nadar’s work, the more the characterizations of his Anglo-Saxon contemporaries begin to look emotionally monogamous.

With the latitude now permitted, or that welled up amiably in the “contract” between photographer and sitter, facial mobility came into its own. If Daudet, Dumas père, and Champfleury, among many others, seem to be addressing us, on the verge even of conversation, they suggest that the barrier between the activity of posing and normal intercourse had been relaxed, or somewhat blurred in the interest of sociability or reportage.

For proof, one has only to look at the first published interview in the history of photography, in Le Journal Illustré, August 1886, for which Paul Nadar took innumerable shots of his father conversing with Chevreul, the famous chemist and color theoretician. Not only was this technically advanced, made possible through a fast shutter (1/133 of a second), but it epitomized the ongoing candor that suffuses Nadar’s portraits. Perhaps even further, he might have wanted to demonstrate how to overcome the fragmentary aspect of the still photograph by multiplying stills through a short time span. In this he could be said to have hinted, in portraiture, at what Marey, whom he admired, and Muybridge, whose work he surely knew, were accomplishing in the representation of animal movement. (It gives an even stronger notion of their aims to learn that the Nadars originally wanted to record Chevreul’s remarks on a phonograph.) Just as significantly, Nadar captions the interview “On the Art of Living One Hundred Years” (Chevreul’s age), and is there- fore rendering homage to a longevity captured admirably in the old man’s crankiness. At one point Chevreul comments, aptly from Nadar’s point of view: “I haven’t told you everything. But to talk is nothing: one must prove, must see. I will make you see, you must see, because when I see I believe.”

Nadar’s keenness of seeing qualified him as a photographer whose tactics can be discussed easily enough on a visual level. For him, volumes, which should be clear and prominent, were modeled by a natural light that he controlled from one side and/or above the head. Varied by screens and reflecting panels, this approach yielded strong graphic designs (Monnier, Guys, Gamier, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Baron Taylor). “Photographic theory can be learned in an hour; the first steps in practice, in a day. . . . That which one doesn’t learn . . . . is the sentiment of light, the artistic appreciation of effects produced on different days.” And when these were wanting, he could still silhouette a dark torso against a darker field by complex mirror arrangements that cast glows into his velvet depths (Gautier, Daumier, Chenavard). “That which is still less understood,” he wrote, “is the moral intelligence of your subject—the rapid tact which puts you in communion with your model . . . . and which permits you to give . . . . the most familiar and favorable resemblance, the intimate resemblance.” To invoke these intangibles, Nadar asserted the most subtle changes in depth of field, a trifle softening, for example, in the near folds of a coat to bring out the sharpness of a nose, or the converse, when the subject benefited by a hazier definition of the face. Full length or bust, direct or angled in glance, viewed slightly from beneath or above, the repose of the figure appears almost in transience—as if a grasp of its special, unique weight would somehow hold down the elusiveness of the present. And so, make it intimate.

But none of these concerns was shaped that it should draw attention to itself. The question of Nadar as a self-conscious artist is not dependent on his use of technical devices that, in any case, were in the hands of many talented contemporaries. Portraits by Holbein, Van Dyck, and Ingres were known to him, but his photos deal only intermittently with their tradition. What he could have admired from the photographs of Hill and Adamson, Gustave LeGray, the Bisson brothers, Mayer and Pierson, and Adam Solomon, famous in their day but still neglected in ours, he duly acknowledged, without being swerved from his course. The featureless, abstract backgrounds in some of his friend Manet’s single-figure compositions are highly reminiscent of Nadar’s but post-date them about 10 years, and far from exerting an influence on them, might be reflecting it. If one is to explain the amplitude of Nadar, one really has to drop these art historical criteria or even stylistic analyses and think about his social psychology.

Nadar’s images of artists, tokens of an environment like all portraits, set forth their own terms of discourse. Because they initially witnessed certain qualities of friendship and remembrance among comrades, they were spared the rhetorical distancing that stiffened the genre all around. Variations of “rank,” the photographer’s or the sitter’s, are quite dissolved in them, a phenomenon that seems to have catalyzed the individual prides of all concerned. There is no evidence to say that Nadar felt compelled to put on artistic airs or to denigrate his position. That “tact” of which he spoke, being freely given, rarely hardened into a mold or a manner. It seems to have permitted subject and photographer a new trust in the camera, and to have redefined the social tone of the portrait.

Whether directly or not, most portraits registered the bonding of people to their community, if only because innumerable clues were given to show their place within its hierarchies. So, these images were about social power, of which they themselves provided an instrument. (This state of affairs did not hamper individualism, but it certainly categorized it.) With Nadar, the aim was to give an account of, rather than to station the “moral intelligence” of the sitter. That was why intimacy was one of his ideals, but not reverence.

When he showed that petulant old warhorse of an artist, Horace Vernet, haberdashed with medals, Nadar had no trouble revealing a seeker of official honors. Delacroix had come to pose, too, that same year, 1858, for an arm-in-coat portrait to accompany an article on his work. But he had been ill, shocked with the results, and begged that ’these sad effigies" be destroyed. Nadar did not accede to the request, though it was uttered in the name of friendship. I’m pleased to think he refused, not just because he saw that he had gotten a remarkable, even cruel illusion of personal power, but because his loyalty was claimed by the image, if it seemed worthy, and not by the ego of the model. Though he was deeply involved with the values of his social set, he could not bring them close to others except by a certain detachment from its interests.

As a reporter, he had every reason to get his facts straight; as a novelist, he felt justified in amplifying character and etching personal myths. So, the contingent had great importance for him, as did the more abiding self-creation of his sitters. In giving testimony of both, the photograph was well suited to his goals. It took imagination to realize this, a delicacy of feeling, a consciousness hospitable to the idea that foibles may honor, contribute to the lasting human memory of the person.

Still, Nadar’s particular authenticity was cut out for a rhetorical role, which it played to the hilt. Iconographically, his portraits fall under three main headings: romantic and bohemian intellectuals who had come of age before the coup-d’état of Louis Napoleon; cultural workers and dignitaries grown to prominence tacitly under his patronage; and the ubiquitous bourgeoisie. The first group, whose adventures he shared, was the decisive one in the formation of his outlook.

Since the advent of the Prince-President, and the assumption of the Second Empire in 1851 (Nadar only commenced to photograph in 1854), the French left had grown more and more demoralized. Its various Utopian: anarchist, or socialist hopes had been cast to the wind. Whatever they had been in 1830, the moderate bourgeois liberars of 1848 had ceased to be a revolutionary force, and everywhere closed ranks against a threat to the social order from impoverished workers. The revolution had combined “the greatest promise, the widest scope, and the most immediate success with the most unqualified and rapid failure” (E. H. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capitalism).

Nadar photographed a number of those once heartened by the “springtime of peoples,” but only during its bitter aftermath, or long thereafter. This is not merely to speak of his luminous portraits of Hugo, Bakunin, Barbes, Prudhon, and Kropotkin, durable rebels throughout the period. I’m referring to those fellow-traveling artists who would have temperamentally symbolized an opposition to imperialism, and whose earlier life-styles embodied freer codes of conduct and thought than could be presently afforded. It is not too farfetched to imagine the political poignance of Nadar’s memorial to the world they had inhabited. That such a portrait was received cordially by middle classes that had nothing to fear from eruptions beneath them is a matter of record. Above all, however, Nadar had “fixed” a certain image of artistic nobility, and therefore of private values, within the public consciousness. The typical cast of earlier portraiture had been made up of those distinguished by wealth, privilege, and birth, or pretensions thereof. More colorfully than anyone else, Nadar saw to it that a new group of mandarins rose to take their place, on the basis of individual talent, vibrancy, and brains—in short, personal qualities having nothing to do with a class structure, and therefore transcending it. To have established such a legend in photography was a coup de theâtre, not only because of the verism of the medium, but because it permitted a wide distribution of images.

Yet, Nadar’s republic of mind can’t be said to have formed any counterculture within the Second Empire, as if it were simply a question of hip versus straight life-styles. On the contrary, time and again, his artist characters present themselves in the severest terms, the most funereal raiment. In an essay on the Père Lachaise cemetery, Frederick Brown writes: “Black broadcloth had always been a flag of sobriety in which Europe’s bourgeoisie draped itself, not with any illusions that clothing made the man, but, on the contrary, hoping that it would serve to hide him.” It’s a sign of their imaginative astuteness that Nadar’s sitters often seemed to have used the costume of bourgeois anonymity to reveal themselves. It became a foil against which they dramatized, for posterity’s benefit, a vision of their own unique and sovereign identity. Nadar seems instinctively to have grasped this, in defining just that moment when the face ripens into characteristic self-assertion, toward which the body also swells. In his astonishing image of Millet, we have nothing less than Jove in a frock coat.

There is a definite contrast between these romantic figures, with their sartorial restraint, and the bourgeoisie of the 1860s, whom Nadar shows to be almost sporty in their get-up. Instead of admonishing or troubled frowns, we now have a sunnier race, in amused or elegant postures. And why not? It was a period of unparalleled capitalist triumph. “The world’s trade between 1800 and 1840 had not quite doubled. Between 1850 and 1870 it increased by 260 percent” (E. H. Hobsbawm). The prosperity that accompanied it seems to have brought a lighter tone, which is visible in such figures of the entertainment world as Finette, an actress of the Theâtre Mabille, with her exquisite grace, and Offenbach, whose droll smile accords well with his music. M. Dagneaux, the nice police officer, shares this mood no less than the boulevardier Manet (though we’re aware he happened to be more than that). It is not generally known that the Nadar studios produced thousands of routine pictures of ordinary mortals under normal commercial conditions.

By 1860, Nadar moved from his cramped quarters in Rue St. Lazare to the first elevator building in Paris, an ampler and more fashionable Boulevard des Capucines installation, whose facade he embellished with a gigantic sign of his signature. Though shadow is largely dispelled from the portraits of his mundane clientele, and with that, acharged presence, they have their charm. It is exerted through the degrees of a modishness that is no longer with us. These people can elicit our curiosity without confronting us. Above all, they do not convey the illusion of being in our time and space, as if history itself has melted away in the intensity of the artist’s stare.

It could not have been otherwise, in view of Nadar’s business competition. “In the summer of 1861,” says Gernsheim, “it was stated that 33,000 people made their living from the production of photographs and photographic materials in Paris alone.” A craze does not accelerate that quickly without a spectacular social incentive. In London, also in 1861, J. E. Mayall started it with his card-sized portraits of Victoria and her family, which were merchandised in albums by the hundreds of thousands. As for the French, their time came when Louis Napoleon casually dropped into Disdéri’s place to have his picture taken, while the army which the emperor was leading off to Italy waited outside. The royals had found a novel way of coining their images and of putting to use a new technology whose economic success originated in the cachet of their patronage. Disdéri was appointed the official court photographer. At the same time, it became clear that an intimate form of social exchange and personal talisman had had a public impetus and played a propaganda role. Ruling families could mime the domestic virtues in cheap, easily distributed images. Bourgeois could have themselves portrayed by means of an aristocratic emblem. From one form of imperial state portraiture to the modern photomat, there is a lineal development.

Though he, too, flirted with mass communications, Nadar’s way had been different, and to understand its symbolism, one must look a little into the career of this complex and utterly engaging character. This is how he judged himself more or less correctly in 1899: “A bygone maker of caricatures, a draftsman without knowing it, an impertinent fisher of bylines in the little newspapers, mediocre author of disdained novels . . . . and finally, refugee in the Botany Bay of photography.” These few phrases do not mention his training as a medical student, his would-be soldiering in Poland, his German spy mission for the Second Republic, his balloon courier service for the Commune, or the scandal caused when he loaned his studio for the first opening of the Impressionists. Possibly the old man might have considered these the false starts and raffish follies of his younger self. There were many such off-the-wall things in his life. And sometimes on-the-ground ones too, such as the crash of his balloon, Le Geant, the largest in the world, near Hanover, after it had been seen off by about 100,000 people in Paris. “Giant,” as an epithet, fitted the self-image of a very tall man, with a taste for the burlesque, more than once given to colossal projects. In all these events a protean character is manifested, one in continual process of self-invention. From his studio we have self-portraits in the guise of a young, flow-haired artist, hands posed à la Stieglitz, of a top-hatted bourgeois going up in a balloon, and of a scientist in a lab coat, nibbling grapes. His friend Jules Verne would have approved of that, the Verne who modelled a character after Nadar in one of his science-fiction novels. But then, who wasn’t Nadar’s friend? He was famous for having friends and for his knack of keeping them.

In 1854, after several years’ team preparation, he issued an enormous lithograph, caricaturing some 250 notables of French culture, winding their way in a cortege toward the bust of George Sand (another dear friend). The plate was called, with typical bravado, Panthéon Nadar. From the sensation it caused he became a celebrity, no mean feat when one remembers it was achieved in a satiric field whose practitioners included Cham, Gavarni, Bertall, Grandville, and Daumier. Much later Nadar wrote of this work that one doesn’t know if the cari-catural charge was the portrait, or the portrait was the caricature, an indication of its actual mildness. As a draftsman, Nadar had a flair for seizing on the main traits of a face, but no lasting graphic skill. It is said that to aid in his portrayal of the notables, he relied on available photographs and took some himself. Evidently the main camera work of Nadar grew out of this experience, and therefore had its origin in a group portrait tradition. In photography, the precedent had been David Octavius Hill’s mob of Scottish clergy.; in art, for example, Daumier’s Les Representants representés (1848). There were innumerable albums, “galleries,” etc., showing well-known contemporaries, for which the public market was insatiable. Everything was coming together for Nadar, the motifs of his life: his generosity, his enterprise, his role-playing. Even his politics. Louis-Napoleon is shown being kicked out of the cortege because a pantheon, after all, is a structure that contains the tombs of the illustrious dead of the nation.

Many photographers during the period made their names by a bit of exotic travel to China, Russia, or Egypt. Nadar adventurously trumped them by discovering unseen views within the boundaries of Paris. Though he was an apostle of heavier-than-air flying machines (helicopters), it was from a balloon that he made some of the first aerial photographs in the history of the medium (1858). By 1861, though, a joke had it that if you couldn’t find Nadar in the skies, you should look for him underground. A sporadically restless experimenter, he had been trying out artificial lights in studio portraiture, and now took his equipment, a pile of Bunsen batteries, for another first into the catacombs and sewers of Paris. Undertaken in a scientific spirit—for the necropolis was hardly a tourist attraction—the results are yet intensely expressive. Seen under his harsh, Gothic glares, these boneyard vistas are the antithesis of his airborne work. The shattered darks disjoint them strangely, within unmarked, oppressive closures. Only mannikins could hold still long enough for the necessary 18 minutes, yet together with the skulls, they start up with a false and horrid life. This is now, literally, the second world, of which Nerval spoke. After thumbing through the glowing portraits in Vitali’s monograph on Nadar, one is shocked to come across these charnel sets at its end, as if the artist all along had been pointing up a lesson about the vanity of the flesh. If so, it must surely have been connected in his mind with the destinations of history. In his autobiography, Quand j’étais photographe, he wrote: “Since the Caesars and the Norman invasions up to the last bourgeois . . . extracted from the Vaugirard cemetery in 1861, all who have lived and died in Paris sleep here, vile multitudes and great acclaimed men, canonized saints and criminals. . . . In the egalitarian confusion of death, the Merovingian king keeps the eternal silence next to the massacred of September, ’92.”

Nadar had a second coming as a photographer in Marseilles, during the 1890s. But his new subjects such as the Boer president or the Queen of Madagascar represented quite a spiritual comedown when compared with those in the republic of the mind. None of his later work could have given the old man, who had started as a grub and hack in the July Monarchy, the joy he felt when Bleriot flew across the English Channel. His congratulatory telegram, reproduced in all the press, acknowledged a new age of speed that signified for him a fresh purchase on life.

Max Kozloff