A Wink and a Nod
The French artist Nadar at his most subversive and sly
By Adam Begley
June 5, 2017
Nadar—the pseudonym of the most famous photographer in 19th-century France, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon—was a celebrity, renowned not only for his portraits of eminent contemporaries but also for his caricatures, his writings, his radical politics. The person Félix photographed most frequently was himself—out of curiosity more than vanity. He experimented on himself, attempting to push portraiture as far as it would go in its fundamental mission of revealing identity. In other words, he tried, fitfully, to set aside his habitual showmanship and show who he was. He worked at a disadvantage: there was no one to charm him out of his self-consciousness. His usual trick was to banter with the sitter, but he couldn’t be expected to banter with himself. Also, he was notoriously bad at holding still: the real Félix was in constant motion, frenetic energy a defining element of his personality. Was he the same man when frozen in place? If Nadar asked a friend to sit for him, he would manipulate the pose and the lighting, chatting away all the while, then step back and examine the result. When he sat for himself, with an assistant releasing the shutter, he could gauge the effectiveness of the pose only after the print was developed. And ironically his eyesight was poor: behind the camera he wore his spectacles, but in front of it he removed them. (You sometimes see them in portraits dangling from a ribbon around his neck.) Sitting for a self-portrait, he was in a sense doubly blind to the goings-on.
Often what we get is only a glimpse of a certain aspect of his personality. The very earliest self-portraits mostly show eagerness. Still unsure of his technique, he wanted the image to prove at least recognizable: apprehension mixes with impatience and desire to produce nothing more than a fuzzy, pleading look on the face of a bohemian no longer in his first youth. As his confidence grew, his ambition asserted itself, and he achieved specific calculated effects. In a striking seated portrait, he looks directly at the camera and attempts—perhaps too transparently—to seduce the viewer with his charm.
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Adam Begley is the author of Updike. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera.