Balloons and Catacombs

04 06 nadar in a balloonToday is the birthday of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by his nickname: ‘Nadar’. He was born in 1820 possibly in Paris, maybe Lyons. Initially, he was training to be a doctor and was particularly interested in the emerging field of psychiatry, but gave it up, probably due to lack of funds. His nickname seems to have come from a tendency among his friends to extend any word by adding ‘dar’ to the end of it. It was a sort of code, a little like pig Latin, but it was a sort of mock medieval French. Hence he became ‘Tournachondar’ then ‘Tournadar’ then just ‘Nadar’.


Nadar had a pretty lean time in his youth and soon fell in with similarly impoverished aspiring artists and writers. He wrote, edited and drew caricatures for a couple of satirical magazines called ‘Le Charivari’ and ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’. One of his fellow artists was Gustave Doré, who I wrote about in January. In 1854, someone persuaded him to open up a photography studio, specialising in portraits. He left the running of it to his brother as he had a lot of drawing to do. But his brother wasn’t great at it and Nadar soon became interested in photography himself.


04 06 nadar studioHe soon became a much sought after portrait artist and, in 1860, moved in to much larger premises. You can see his studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines on the left. A glass fronted building with his signature on the front of it in huge letters. I wonder what those people on the roof are doing… Nadar depicted his subjects simply and did not surround them with props. He enjoyed being able to put people at their ease and saw his work very much as a collaboration between himself and his sitter. He believed that by applying what he called ‘the psychology of photography’ he could produce an intimate portrait that more closely resembled his subject. He photographed so many famous people that it’s hard to know which to show you. Below are Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote ‘The Three Musketeers’ and his friend and fellow flying enthusiast Jules Verne. The other picture is a series of twelve self-portraits. Someone has thoughtfully made them into a gif, which I can’t post here, but if you want to see Nadar twirling round and round you’ll find him here. The originals were taken in about 1865, that’s several years before Muybridge’s galloping horses.

04 06 gustave dore04 06 alexandre dumas04 06 jules verne04 06 twelve nadars


04 06 catacombs parisHis work was not just confined to portraiture, in 1858, he became the first person to take aerial photographs. He did this by taking his camera up in a balloon. This was even less easy than it sounds because the glass plates he used had to be prepared, exposed and developed during the flight. As well as taking pictures from the air, he was also the first to take photographs underground. In 1861, he used an early kind of arc lamp to give enough light to photograph the catacombs underneath Paris.


In 1863, he commissioned the building of the biggest balloon in the world It was called ‘Le Géant’. The balloon was 196 ft (60 m) high with a capacity of 6,000 cubic metres. It carried a two storey wicker basket that had six cabins including a printing room and a toilet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. It was mainly the landings that were the problem. It’s second flight took its passengers 400 miles, but it hit a strong air current as it descended and almost hit a moving train. Nevertheless, the huge balloon inspired Jules Verne to write his first adventure novel ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’  and Nadar himself was the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne’s ‘Rocket to the Moon.’


The failure of the balloon led Nadar to the conclusion that the future of flight was in heavier than air machines. He and Jules Verne established  ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. Nadar was president, Verne was secretary. I’ve been unable to find out if there were any other members. Maybe I didn’t look too hard because it’s quite fun to imagine it was just them. Nadar didn’t totally give up on balloons though. In 1870/71 during the siege of Paris he helped organise balloon flights carrying mail, connecting the besieged city with the rest of the world. It was the first air mail service.

04 06 balloon basket

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