Falling upwards, p.16
Falling Upwards, p.16Richard Holmes
Nadar had a genius for elevating things. He was one of the earliest masters of the new nineteenth-century art of visual publicity. He turned unknown people into celebrities, and gave new ideas public prominence, largely by fixing them with memorable imagery. Even his own name was created as a visual logo to publicise his work. The one-word signature ‘Nadar’ was carefully designed with a long, forward-racing letter ‘N’, to express his particular energy and enthusiasm. He actually copyrighted this logo signature, once fought a court case to retain control of it, used it on the covers of his books, and had it incorporated into an early form of red neon sign above his Parisian studio by Antoine Lumière.1
Born in April 1820 into a prosperous family of Parisian printers, recently established in the fashionable rue Saint-Honoré, Nadar was christened Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, and schooled in the latest techniques of printmaking and print advertising. Self-confident, sociable and highly original from the start, he broke away into the world of literary bohemia, and soon became known for his wild ideas, his immense height and his memorable shock of carrot-coloured hair. He was already a kind of walking logo. He plunged into radical politics and satirical journalism, and took part in the revolutionary street disturbances of 1848 in Paris, always remaining a republican. But his visual and business talents soon emerged, and by his mid-thirties he had established himself as a brilliantly inventive cartoonist, caricaturist and commercial artist.
From 1851 the Paris of the Second Empire saw an explosion of newspapers, illustrated journals and satirical magazines, such as La Silhouette, Le Charivari, La Revue comique and Le Journal pour rire (the equivalent of the modern Le Canard enchainé and Charlie hebdo). Nadar exploited these with astonishing energy and flair. Commissioned by leading Parisian editors such as Charles Philipon, he drew cartoons of all the leading celebrities of the day. Already thinking in ‘panoptic’ terms, he chose figures from every artistic field of endeavour for which Paris was famous: painting, music, theatre, opera and literature. These early portraits-chargés were signed by an early version of his logo, with his name altered from Tournachon to ‘Tournadard’. This might be translated as ‘Jab-the-barb’, although his caricatures were for the most part gentle and humorous, even flattering. His subjects faithfully collected the originals.
Nadar then had the genius to combine them all into a single, enormous cortège: Le Panthéon Nadar, a true panoptic vision. He published this independently, as an expensive and hugely popular poster, in 1854. It made his name, and established his logo. He was now almost universally known, especially among the writers of the day. Baudelaire, Hugo, Gautier, Nerval, Dumas, the Goncourts, George Sand and – notably – Jules Verne, were all to become personal friends. And they were all also to be photographed.
Alive to all new technical developments, Nadar saw the possibilities of photography – ‘writing with light’ – as a novel means of portraiture, and also of publicity. With the arrival of the wet-plate collodion method in the early 1850s, it was possible to take a photograph in less than thirty seconds, rather than the several minutes that daguerreotypes had previously required. Individual photographic portraiture – not merely a superficial ‘likeness’, but a study of personality in depth – became practicable. Nadar saw both the immense artistic and commercial potential of this. He swiftly mastered the techniques, and ‘exchanged the pencil for the camera’. In January 1855 he opened a fashionable photographic studio at 35, boulevard des Capucines. At the same time, he also fought a successful legal battle against his younger brother Adrien to retain exclusive rights to his logo ‘Nadar’, and installed his first illuminated ‘Nadar’ sign above his premises.2
It was a shrewd move. Nadar quickly became the most famous portrait photographer in France. Between 1854 and 1860 he photographed nearly all his celebrated friends, compiling a matchless Album Nadar. It was said that while André Disderi was the official ‘establishment’ photographer (politicians, generals, aristocrats, wives), Nadar was the official ‘opposition’ photographer (writers, actors, painters, mistresses). Victor Hugo – himself always a republican – sent letters to him from Belgium or the Channel Islands addressed simply to ‘Nadar, Paris’.3
Determined to master the whole photographic field, Nadar had been secretly struggling with aerial photography, on and off, since 1855. He worked from a small hydrogen balloon, provided by Louis Godard, tethered above an apple orchard in the village of Petit-Bicêtre, outside Paris.4 Since the clichés, or glass photographic plates, had to be prepared and painted with the wet collodion gum on the spot, that is to say while actually in the air, Nadar had immense difficulties. It was not a question of breakages, but of contamination. For a long time the escaping gas from the balloon contaminated his developing chemicals, and rendered all his plates black after exposure. After endless experiments, he hit upon the solution of closing the balloon’s escape valve and fitting a special kind of thick cotton insulating tent to the basket.5 He described the intense excitement of his first success in a memoir, When I Was a Photographer:
It’s just a simple positive on a glass plate, very feeble in this misty atmosphere, all blotchy after so many false starts. But what does that matter? The evidence cannot be dismissed. There beneath me, the only three houses in the little hamlet: the farm, the inn and the police station. It’s the unmistakable image of Petit-Bicêtre. You can clearly make out on the road a furniture cart whose driver has come to a halt directly below the balloon, and on the tiles of the rooftops two white pigeons which have just alighted there. Yes, I was right!6
Nadar was much concerned to establish commercial priority for his invention, and made wildly extravagant claims about the exact date on which he achieved this technical breakthrough, for example as early as autumn 1855. But the only reliable documentary proof is his French patent, which was first registered on 23 October 1858. The patent referred to a ‘special combination of equipment’ taken up in a balloon, which would allow him ‘to employ photography for the production of topographical plans and cadastral surveys, and also for the direction of strategic military operations, for the erection of fortifications, and the disposition of armies on the march etc.’ The camera would be mounted ‘perpendicularly in the balloon car’, either fixed ‘laterally on the outside’, or else positioned ‘at the bottom of the car using a perforated section’.
Nadar also patented a ‘sliding lens shutter’ to allow the camera to be operated automatically; a black cotton tent for preparing the plate, and also a yellow one for developing it afterwards. The whole operation could thus be performed within the balloon basket, and the aeronaut could descend to earth with the finished glass negative. The design was of course very far from the flapping, comic tripod wittily imagined by Daumier.7
The following spring, 1859, Nadar claimed he was able to take a further historic series of Paris photographs from several hundred feet above the Right Bank. He recorded these simply as ‘several views of the Bois de Boulogne, Arc de Triomphe, and perspectives on the place des Ternes’. They are not of fine quality, but have a surprisingly long perspective to the north of the city, and have been proudly annotated to show the place des Ternes, the Parc Monceau and the heights of Montmartre in the far distance.8
But again, the date Nadar gave is not certain. If he really did take his first aerial photographs in 1858, it is curious that the Daumier cartoon is dated 1862. Nadar did not return to aerial photography until 1868, when a second, much-better-quality set, clearly showing the Arc de Triomphe, is well documented. So there remains some dispute over who actually took the first successful aerial photograph from a balloon. On 13 October 1860 James Black and Samuel King flew in their balloon Queen of the Air over Boston harbour, and took a series of high-quality photographs of the roofscapes and ships immediately beneath. The best of these was subsequently widely distributed in an oval frame as ‘Boston, As the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It’, and soon gained the reputation of being ‘the first ever aerial photograph, 1860’. Yet no balloon photographs
As for Nadar, in a typical volte-face, he left the air and went underground to photograph the Paris sewers and catacombs, taking out a first patent on ‘photography by artificial lights’ on 4 February 1861. He sold a set of eight photographs entitled ‘Paris Overhead and Underground’ to a minor Brussels publisher on 25 October 1866, which suggests his aerial photos were well known by that date. A cartoon by Cham shows two Parisians on a boulevard, one peering down into a manhole, the other gaping upwards into the sky. The first turns to the second: ‘Are you looking for Monsieur Nadar? He ain’t up there! He’s down here!’9
Nadar was rarely content to pursue one scheme at a time. His quick mind had already moved on to a new publicity challenge. He began to think about ballooning itself, and by extension the whole question of sustained and navigable flight. Was it possible? He had always been fascinated by balloons, having first seen one in Paris at the age of eight or nine during the Fête du Roi of 1829. It flew very low down the Champs-Elysées, grazing the treetops and followed by a shouting, ecstatic crowd. He was much struck by the people’s reaction, and thought afterwards that the publicity possibilities of such an event were huge.10
With undimmed boyish enthusiasm, Nadar threw himself at this age-old question in aeronautics. Could a balloon, a ‘lighter than air’ machine, ever truly be navigated? And if not, what kind of ‘heavier than air’ machine must be invented to replace it? To address this debate in his own unique way, Nadar undertook three quite different forms of publicity campaign. The first was fairly modest: he set up a discussion group, founding the Society for the Promotion of Heavier than Air Locomotion, which began meeting at his studio in July 1863; Jules Verne was a member of the steering committee. Then, the following month, Nadar launched a beautifully illustrated review, L’Aéronaute, dedicated to the challenge of flight in all its aspects. Its first issue had a cover designed by Gustave Doré. Finally he began construction of a truly enormous gas balloon, Le Géant (‘The Giant’), to demonstrate both the capabilities and the limitations of aerostation.11
As part of his campaign, Nadar circulated photo-portraits of himself as a gentleman balloonist. These were not shot perilously en plein air, but safely in his studio at the boulevard des Capucines. He appears incongruously in top hat and evening dress, with a warm tartan plaid casually over one shoulder, and an expensive pair of opera glasses to hand. His large frame is elegantly posed in a wicker observation basket against a background of delicately painted clouds. The effect is unexpectedly comic, but this may have been exactly Nadar’s intention. It is in its own way a photographic caricature: the balloonist as aerial flâneur, a gentleman of the upper air, a voyageur extraordinaire.
In the same mode, Nadar published a spectacular ‘Manifesto of Aerial Autolocomotion’ in a winter 1862 edition of La Presse, announcing his Géant scheme. It is presented as a disinterested scientific project, undertaken purely at his own expense, but with obvious commercial potential internationally (for anyone who might care to invest). At the same time Nadar makes witty use of hyperbole, so it can also be read as a brilliant and playful piece of advertising copy:
I shall construct a balloon – the last word in balloons – in proportions extraordinarily gigantic, twenty times larger than the largest hitherto known. It will realise what has only been a dream in the American journals; and it will attract, in France, England, and America, those vast crowds that are always ready to run to witness even the most insignificant balloon ascents.
In order to add further to the interest of the spectacle – which, I declare beforehand, without fear of contradiction, shall be the most beautiful spectacle which it has ever been given to mankind to contemplate! – I shall dispose under this monster balloon a small balloon (or balloonette) designed to receive and preserve the excess of gas produced by dilation. Instead of losing this excess, as has hitherto been the case, this will permit my balloon to undertake genuinely extensive voyages, instead of remaining in the air two or three hours only, like our predecessors.
I do not wish to ask anything of any private investor, nor of the State, to aid me in this proposal of such general, and also of such immense scientific interest. I shall endeavour to furnish entirely by myself the enormous sum of two hundred thousand francs necessary for the construction of my balloon. Once my balloon is completed, I am confident that a series of well-publicised ascents and successive exhibitions at Paris, London, Brussels, Vienna, Baden, Berlin, New York (and anywhere else I can think of) will generate ten times the funds necessary for the construction of my next scheme: our first true [heavier-than-air] aerolocomotive.12
Le Géant was designed and piloted by the leading French aeronauts Louis and Jules Godard.13 Nadar was careful to publicise the precise financial and technical details of its gigantesque construction, knowing that such lavish extravagance had a particular appeal in the Second Empire. The balloon was made of twenty-two thousand yards of silk, costing the equivalent of five shillings and fourpence a yard, making its price alone almost £6,000. This was cut into 118 gores, which were entirely hand-sewn with a double seam. Two hundred women were employed for a month in the sewing of the gores. For the sake of greater strength, the silk was doubled. In other words, there were two balloons of the same size, one within the other. The vast envelope contained 212,000 cubic feet of gas and stood approximately 196 feet in height when fully inflated. This was well over twelve storeys high (nearly the height of the first platform of the Eiffel Tower when it was built in 1887). It was a truly fantastic sight, visible for miles above most of the surrounding buildings of Paris. It was the biggest logo that Nadar had ever imagined.14
Nadar’s deployment of all these hard facts and figures was carefully set against a personal narrative which appealed directly to the sympathies of his readers. He turned the whole construction process into a gripping drama.
I have set myself to work immediately, constantly and with great difficulties, suffering sleepless nights and daily vexations. These I have kept to myself up till now, but one day this winter when the most urgent part of my task is completed, I shall reveal all to my readers. I have succeeded in establishing my balloon, and in simultaneously founding this journal – L’Aéronaute. It will become the indispensable guide to aerial autolocomotion. And I shall have laid the basis of that which shall be, perhaps, the greatest financial operation of the age. Those who see and appreciate these labours, will I hope pardon their Nadar, for wiping the sweat from his brow with a little gesture of pride! In one month’s time, a mere one month! – I shall announce: ‘C’est fait! It is accomplished!’15
Nadar commissioned a spectacular wickerwork gondola to house paying passengers in the greatest possible comfort. The gondola expressed something of Nadar’s childlike enthusiasm and fantasy. It looked less like a conventional balloon basket than a fairy-tale cottage out of a children’s illustrated book. (Admittedly, some critics said it looked like a small garden shed.) It was thirteen feet long, eight feet wide, and ten feet tall – but somehow looked bigger and more mysterious than these prosaic dimensions. It was constructed on two levels, with an open-top sundeck like a kind of aerial balcony, and an enclosed lower deck like a ship’s cabin.
The cabin had a central entrance door, and several little windows or portholes. It could be divided by partitions into a maximum of six separate compartments, and the extensive fixtures were altered according to the requirements of different voyages. Besides the captain’s compartment with a navigation desk, it contained at various times a set of guest bunk beds, a small printing press, a photographic studio, a galley kitchen and wine store, and – most important last touch of luxury – a portable lavatory. The upper deck was reached by an internal ladder. Nadar claimed that Le Géant could carry up to twenty people, and had a lifting capacity of four and a half tons. The original is still proudly kept on display at the Musée de l’Air at Le Bourget, Paris.16
The maiden voyage
Taking advantage of the immediate publicity, Nadar launched the second flight of Le Géant a fortnight later, on 18 October. This time he announced a sustained long-distance voyage eastwards: Germany, Austria, Poland, even Russia were all possible destinations. The balloon supplies were fully restocked, but this time there were only six people on board. It was something like a professional crew: the balloon’s two designers, the brothers Louis and Jules Godard, a member of the Montgolfier family, a reporter, Théobald Saint-Félix, Nadar himself and – rather surprisingly – Nadar’s young wife. Nadar’s public relations had been masterly: the spectacular sunset lift-off was witnessed by no less than the Emperor Napoleon III himself, and the King of Greece, both VIP guests in a special enclosure.18
Le Géant sailed rapidly north-eastwards across Paris and towards the Belgian border. Nadar records that they took supper on the sundeck and opened no fewer than six different cases of vintage wine supplied gratis by the Paris wine merchant Courmeaux (just one of many examples of his skilful marketing). After nightfall, like Green in the Nassau, they watched with fascination as they passed over the fiery Belgian ironworks.19
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