Skip to main content
No. 1967:
Felix Tournachon -- Nadar

Today, birds vs. clouds. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Art historian Nigel Gosling begins his book about Félix Tournachon, with author Victor Hugo addressing a letter to him. All Hugo had to do was scribble the word Nadar on the envelope. Tournachon was that famous in Paris, under his pseudonym, Nadar.

Nadar/Tournachon was born in 1820. His freethinking parents didn't marry until he was five. He studied medicine, then journalism. Then he ran with the Paris radicals that you and I know best from the opera La Boheme. He worked as drama critic, shop clerk, caricature artist, pamphleteer -- you name it, he did it. 

Exactly how Nadar had gotten into photography is unclear. He and that technology had grown up together and, in 1854, he opened his own studio. Although he lived to the age of ninety, and although he continued to dabble to the end, his photography is his legacy.

He left an extraordinary record of faces: Jules Verne, Victor Hugo -- Rossini, Baudelaire, Manet, Offenbach, Liszt -- Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtree. I feel linked with this other world when I see his photo of Pablo Casals, whom I've heard play.

He also took his camera up into the sky and down into the earth. He photographed the famed Paris sewers and he pioneered ae-rial photography. Just try to imagine handling a bulky camera, with its long exposure times, in a hydrogen or hot air balloon.

Nadar, never one to do things by halves, didn't just rent a balloon, he vigorously took up the cause of flight. First, he helped to form a Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by means of Heavier-Than-Air-Machines. Notice that heavier-than-air phrase. He and his friend Victor Hugo felt very strongly that balloons were a mere stopgap. Hugo had written,

Raise your eyes to the heavens ... There I see two kinds of flight that of the cloud and that of the bird. One is the plaything of the wind. [The other] opposes the wind and dominates it. Let our aeronauts be inspired by [the birds].

Hugo and Nadar read the future correctly, but the balloon was all they yet had. Nadar had a huge one built. Its two-story high cab carried fourteen people. Its second flight ended badly. Caught helpless as a cloud in the wind, it was dragged for a kilometer as it landed. Both Nadar and his wife were seriously hurt. 

But Nadar went on, not only to make aerial photos, but also to patent the idea of photographic mapping. We gaze down from the sky at the Arc de Triompheas it looked in 1868. Two years later Nadar photographed the first balloon rising from Paris, during the Prussian siege, trying to make contact with the outside world. 

And, the year before he died, he cabled Louis Bleriot, who had just flown the English Channel. "Deep gratitude for the joy with which your triumph fills this antediluvian of the heavier-than-air machine," he said. For indeed the bird had triumphed over the cloud. And Nadar had been the recording witness of it all.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

N. Gosling, Nadar. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976)

My thanks to Rob Zaretsky, UH Honors College for suggesting the topic. See also, Episode 1966. For more on aerial photography, see Episodes 284 and 1729. For more on balloons during the Siege of Paris, see Episodes 1132 and 1492.


Nadar photo of Santos-Dumont
A Nadar photo of Santos-Dumont in one of his (heavier-than-air) aeroplane designs