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The Great Nadar by Adam Begley

The Great Nadar by Adam Begley
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Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, was a “wayward and beguiling 19th century gadabout”, said Sam Leith in The Spectator. Born in Paris in 1820, he became “many things in his energetic career” – a caricaturist, a prolific author, a “first-rate” photographer and a “reckless aeronaut”. Above all, though, he was a “publicist of preternatural genius”. Nadar’s photographic atelier in Paris was “surmounted by a 50ft illuminated sign reading ‘Nadar’”. Long fascinated by the possibilities of human flight, in 1863 he set about constructing the world’s largest hot air balloon, the 200ft-tall Le Géant; its maiden voyage, from Paris, was watched by 500,000 people – though it crash-landed in a bog. As Adam Begley’s fine biography shows, Nadar excelled, “100 years before it was much thought of”, at “managing the business of celebrity”.

Nadar was also “infinitely lovable”, said Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times. He became close friends with many of the leading lights of his era, including Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire and Sarah Bernhardt. He was someone who was “thrilling to know”. Yet there was nothing frivolous about his work behind the camera. The moment he discovered photography in his mid-30s, “everything changed”. He was soon regularly producing “masterpieces” such as his famous photograph of his wife, Ernestine, after she suffered a stroke, which is “among the greatest photos ever taken”. Nadar had a “gigantic sense of fun”, said Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Literary Review. All his life, he hated boredom, and this no doubt lay behind his love of ballooning, a “hobby that allowed him literally to have his head in the clouds”. In this “witty” and “punchy” book, Begley succeeds in bringing this “elusive” figure back to life.