The Great Nadar by Adam Begley

The Great Nadar

Adam Begley

The Great Nadar illuminates a larger-than-life figure, a visionary whose outsized talent and canny self-promotion put him ahead of his time.

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A dazzling, stylish biography of a fabled Parisian photographer, adventurer, and pioneer.

A recent French biography begins, Who doesn't know Nadar? In France, that's a rhetorical question. Of all of the legendary figures who thrived in mid-19th-century Paris—a cohort that includes Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, and Alexandre Dumas—Nadar was perhaps the most innovative, the most restless, the most modern.

The first great portrait photographer, a pioneering balloonist, the first person to take an aerial photograph, and the prime mover behind the first airmail service, Nadar was one of the original celebrity artist-entrepreneurs. A kind of 19th-century Andy Warhol, he knew everyone worth knowing and photographed them all, conferring on posterity psychologically compelling portraits of Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Delacroix, Daumier and countless others—a priceless panorama of Parisian celebrity.

Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, he adopted the pseudonym Nadar as a young bohemian, when he was a budding writer and cartoonist. Later he affixed the name Nadar to the façade of his opulent photographic studio in giant script, the illuminated letters ten feet tall, the whole sign fifty feet long, a garish red beacon on the boulevard. Nadar became known to all of Europe and even across the Atlantic when he launched "The Giant," a gas balloon the size of a twelve-story building, the largest of its time. With his daring exploits aboard his humongous balloon (including a catastrophic crash that made headlines around the world), he gave his friend Jules Verne the model for one of his most dynamic heroes.

The Great Nadar
 is a brilliant, lavishly illustrated biography of a larger-than-life figure, a visionary whose outsized talent and canny self-promotion put him way ahead of his time.

Advance Galley Reviews

The book was an entertaining sketch of bohemian Paris and the circle of poets, novelists, actors and artists Nadar associated with. Nadar himself was a colorful, larger than life character with a talent for making himself the life of the party, and not being familiar with his name before, I was surprised to recognize several of the images he created of famous writers of his day. I'm glad I got a chance to learn about him and his work, and to have a name to put to his work that I'd seen before.

The Great Nadar was difficult for me to read. It was especially slow to start. There were times I wanted to give up but I’m glad I read it through. This is a subject I know little about so was very interested in Nadar and his times. The information was thorough but presented in a dry manner that sometimes made it difficult to read. But the pictures and illustrations – those, for me, were the highlight of this book. I kept going back to them. They told the story of the times so much better than the words.

First I learned about Nadar in university when studying art history. But this book gave a full insight into Nadar's life: from his childhood and parents' philosophy (which, by the way, was shockingly modern), to his life as an artist of all sorts, to sharing his success with not-so-talented brother and son. The book is filled with photographs which is important part of Nadar's visual story, and surrounded by well-researched historic contexts. Although I think some parts were not too necessary, nor too interesting - the several chapters just on the flying balloons... Small mentioning of them in the beginning was more than enough.

The name Nadar is not well known today for those not in the field of photography, though the friends he surrounded himself with were. The likes of Manet, and George Sand, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire were within Nadar's circle along with hundreds others that were known in their time, but perhaps less so now. A true Bohemian, Nadar worked his way up in Paris starting as a satirist doing caricatures and then moved to photographs in which he distinguished himself in portraits as well as being the first to photograph an area in the absence of any natural light, the catacombs in Paris. His passions led him to be a huge proponent of aeronautical travels and he once had a balloon created with an attached wicker house of sorts which crashed dramatically. Twice. During the war he used balloons to attempt reconnaissance against the Prussians and deliver mail when cities were cut off. In short, he accomplished a great deal of things, though he never stuck with any for too long. Full of never-ending energy,Nadar was quixotic at best, at worst he had his head too far in the clouds - literally at times - to attend the to finances of any one business endeavor. His life was a series of riches found and lost, but his compelling and ebullient character was what endeared him to so many. Begley does a good job of documenting Nadar's life and noting those surrounding him. Unfortunately, as Begley notes in the ending chapter, Nadar, though fascinating in his own larger-than-life personality, seems hard to bond with on page. As Begley says, "There's a kind of poetic justice at work here. In all his professions, Nadar relied on the cult of celebrity to sell his work, whether it was a feuilleton, a caricature, or a photograph. Now his tireless efforts as a publicist returned to haunt his posthumous reputation: he was mourned not as an artist with a particular genius but as a boulevardier, a celebrity who consorted with celebrities." This seemed to sum up my issues with the biography. While I thought Nadar's persona entertaining, I found myself wanting to know more about the celebrities he was consorting with, the famed writers and artists whose names are still known today. In short, while the biography was well done, and I think Begley did a good job of noting the sociopolitical forces in the background, I found myself less drawn to Nadar, and more to his friends.

I didn't know anything at all about Nadar before I picked this book up, which may be why I had a little trouble getting into it. On the other hand, Adam Begley was clearly fascinated by Nadar and the world he lived in--the world he fashioned for himself--and that enjoyment of his subject shows. I found the book a little slow to get going, although that may have been partly because Nadar's Paris is not a time or place I have a lot of knowledge about, which meant I had only cursory knowledge of most of the people and places that were referenced. I suspect this is probably a book that depends largely on its audience; readers who come into it with no knowledge of Nadar and no especial interest in his time/place/society will be less engaged by it than someone who already has a little background knowledge. You don't have to be an expert, but you'll probably enjoy it more if you're already a little bit invested in the topic before you start reading.

A Penguin First to Read ARC e-book in exchange for an honest review. Celebrities are such a huge part of our culture, and The Great Nadar was part of the original cast. He is a fascinating man that accomplished so much in his lifetime. From what we read he was so full of life and animation but the book itself was more like a dense textbook so it was hard to get engaged into right away. Once I became more invested it was worth the read if you like history and seeing how people get their starts.

3 stars. I enjoyed reading the parts about Nadar himself but the author kept careening way off topic, and I found it hard to follow him always. I wish he had focused more on Nadar and less on the other people.

3.5 stars ~~ Thank you to First-to-Read Digital and Duggan Books for the copy of this ARC. Nadar, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, was a man I did not know, in a time that I knew little about. His accomplishments were great - writer, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, the first to develop the still used comic panels, in addition to the way our current newspapers are still laid out. Born April 6, 1820, died March 21, 1910, a few weeks shy of his ninetieth birthday. Married a woman half his age, Ernestine Constance Lefèvre, on August 11, 1854 and had one son Paul - who later in life took over not only his Paris photography studio, but also his very famous logo of "Nadar." Having lead an exciting Bohemian lifestyle, rich at times and totally broke at others, Nadar was praised by those who knew him. He was surrounded with famous poets, composers, painters, politicians, writers, actresses, ballerinas, opera singers and journalists - most of who had had their portrait taken by Nadar. The novel shows many many pictures of not only famous people, but of the various projects and discoveries of Nadar, such as various hot air balloons and other things that interested him throughout his life. His many friends' photos are also included such as George Sands, Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt, Verdi and John Winston Churchill. One way to know more about Nadars life is to "read Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, an unusual book, part essay, part short story, part memoir, in which Barnes briefly sketches the contours of Nadar’s curious career and irrepressible character. In addition Nadar’s work is scattered around the world in various libraries and museums." At times a bit slow, as many biographies are, but overall a good read. Very informative, funny at times, heartbreaking at times, however the inclusion of all the photographs made this a very worthwhile novel to read.

The Great Nadar: the Man Behind the Camera by Adam Begley tells the story of Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, aka Felix Nadar. Nadar was a great portrait photographer, pioneering balloonist, caricaturist and bohemian, and Begley covers all of these aspects of Nadar's life in a well written narrative. Not having heard of him before this book, I found Nadar to be a fascinating figure, and it was fun ti read about his "celebrity" associations and how he handled all of those relationships. Equally interesting and entertaining was his time spent as a balloonist, which was so inspiring that Jules Verne modeled a character after Nadar. I enjoyed learning about Nadar, but had a hard time getting into the book, probably because of my unfamiliarity with the subject, and France, and a good amount of the people discussed. But by the time I finished the book, I was quite pleased with it and I learned a lot. The inclusion of Nadar's photographs and some works of art was an added bonus. This would be a great read for Francophiles, or anyone interested in photography and/or French, specifically Parisian, history.

Nadar was really a fascinating man, with a complicated personality that led him down a lot of interesting paths of creation and adventure. I'm glad I got to know him a little better, and to learn more about France at the time of so many great figures of the 19th century. My only complaint about this book is the manner in which it is written, which is less than engaging and reads more like a textbook. If the writer had approached the book in a more "Nadar-esque" fashion, it would have been hard to put down.

The Great Nadar created himself at the dawn of the cult of celebrity in the 1800's. He started as a writer, then moved on to caricaturist, photographer and balloonist. During this time he was at the center of the burgeoning colony of artist, writers, singer and actors that made Paris of the 1800's the "in" place for art and culture. Nadar undoubtedly would have his own reality show if he were alive today. Begley tells the story of this unique character in great detail, obviously after an enormous amount of research. For me, the telling of this trailblazers life was not quite as interesting as I'm sure the life itself was. There was a lot of name dropping and activity that somehow didn't quite translate to a "real" biography. I plowed through the book but found it only mildly enjoyable. If you're rabidly interested in French culture of the 1800's then this is the book for you. If not, then perhaps you can live without knowing who Nadar is. I was given this book through Penguins First To Read Program.

I had a bit of a hard time getting into the book for the first few chapters. However, I liked the lay of the book with the pictures embedded in the text. I had never heard of Nadar before seeing this book and was intrigued by the possibility of learning about a new person during that time period. I would recommend this for reading, but only if you can sit down and get into the book. It's not one where I feel that I could read a little bit whenever. I had to sit down in a comfy chair in a quiet place and read it.

I expected to be a little more enthralled with this book than I was. The first few chapters were a slog to get through, and I never understood why he was such a fabulous dude. I have to admit, I abandoned it and read the last chapter just to know what happened.

I am entirely unable to download this title. so sorry. No sense in me using read it forward at all in this case

I agree with all the other reviews - this book was easy to read and engaging from page one. The layout, with pictures incorporated into the text, was really interesting, and a refreshing change from the centerfolds of images in so many current biographies and history books. I was drawn to this book, not only because I had never heard of Nadar before, but also because it touched on a time period that I've always been interested in. I've found this to be a fascinating biography, and I will definitely recommend it to others!

I kind agree with the previous reviews here and feel can't add more than what was written in them. I find the book easy to follow and interesting and the layout of text with pictures made it a great read experience. I think I may buy a copy of this book for my personal library.

The Great Nadar. Who? The Man Behind the Camera. I had no clue who Nadar was. But, reading the promo blurb and learning that this Nadar knew every important Parisian artist and writer, my interest was piqued. Adam Begley's book The Great Nadar introduced me to this 19th c Parisian luminary who loved the 'new' and was on the cutting edge of every development. Nadar (1820-1910) was born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon. His nickname, Nadar, came from his friends when a young man, and it became his "trademark and most valuable property." He was a master in self-promoting. He was a risk taker who gave 100% to every new venture. He was a failed medical student. He "threw himself" into "startup newspapers and little magazines." He was the ultimate Bohemian living in poverty. He reinvented himself as a successful caricaturist and then as a pioneering photographer. He was a balloonist who envisioned helicopters and was the first to take an aerial photograph. During the Siege of Paris, his balloonists got news out to the world. He then helped get news into Paris through microfilm inserted into quills that were carried by homing pigeons. A tall, thin man with orange hair, Nadar was beloved by his friends for his brilliant conversation and high spirits. He had impeccable taste in furnishing his photography studio and an impressive art collection. Nadar hobnobbed with the great stars of his time and they all sat for him to photograph. His photography was familiar to me. He had the ability to capture his subject's nature and character. After reading Elizabeth Berg's novel on George Sand, The Dream Lover, I went online to learn more about Sand. It was Nadar's photographs that I found. I had known his work long before I knew Nadar himself. I enjoyed this biography. Nadar was forever fascinating. The many presentations of Nadar's work was wonderful. I received a free ebook through First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

I was familiar with Nadar as one of the premiere portrait photographers of the dawn of photography (even just in general), but this book shows that not only was he a man of many talents, he was a true bohemian who rubbed elbows with many of the legendary names of Paris. It's fascinating to read about how he slowly developed his skills in different arenas and the persona of Nadar emerges. Be prepared to know at least the basics of who's who in Paris during the nineteenth century or you won't be as impressed with the name dropping that takes place in this book. It seems like Nadar had dealings with pretty much everyone who was anyone. Which might explain part of his amazing talent of celebrity portraiture. He was friends (or at least friendly) with pretty much anyone he ever photographed. The only thing that bothered me is that it's very obvious that the author is a big fan of Nadar's. He makes it seem like the man was incapable of doing anything wrong and all his life was full of triumphs. with failures and mistakes being just tiny little speed bumps that are hardly worth mentioning. I'm not saying that I wanted the book to be a big downer on the man, but it would have been nice to balance out the love-fest with some of the challenges Nadar surely faced. Overall, it's a fantastic introduction to a lesser known light of Paris during the 19th century. You not only get to know the man, you learn about the history and the events that shaped both him and France. It's both an art book and a history book.

Thanks Penguin's First to Read for this ARC. The pictures really are vital to this biography. It's amazing to see all the cool stuff Nadar and his team made without computers or green screen. A visionary who would feel at home if he time traveled to 2017!

Wonderful biography whose subject I had not been familiar with before reading. Great illustrations and photographs show that this was a man of great talent and seems unfair that he has been all but lost to history. Hopefully this book can help stem that tide.

For someone as famous as Felix Tournachon was, and for all that he did, I really don't recall having heard of him before, even by his better known pseudonym Nadar. Writer, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, inventor...he was a 19th century polymath who trafficked in circles of the French celebrities of the day. His caricatures were incredibly detailed, but it was the portrait photography, wonderfully reproduced in the book, that is extraordinary. In the dawn of the art, Nadar, with primitive tools, created stunning, beautifully composed photographs. For those alone, the book is worth the read.

I found the book informative since I hadn't known about the subject Nadar, a 19th century photographer, among other talents, but also a great self promoter. His exploits were entertaining and at times over the top, for instance a giant balloon crash, but he was renowned for his photography and caricatures. The illustrations generously distributed throughout the narrative were the most appreciated as they captured the man and his works. His contemporaries as subjects and their views of Nadar himself are a lot of the story The book was worth the effort for the illustrations.

I admit I had never heard of Nadar before reading this book, which is a friendly introduction to the 19th Century photographer, writer, caricaturist, bohemian, self-promoter, and aeronautics enthusiast. While Adam Begley consistently attributes Nadar's exploits to a giant-sized, restless and passionate personality, Nadar's own words, as quoted in this book, make him seem rather conservative and querulous much of the time. But evidently when he latched on to an idea, he would not let go until he had given it his all, and he seems to have had fun along the way. Anyone already attracted to this period in French literary and political history--the Second Empire of Napoleon III, the Siege of Paris, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, Alexandre Dumas--will enjoy this book immensely, since Nadar placed himself at the center of Parisian celebrity intellectual culture of his time. The treats in this book are the reproductions of Nadar's drawings and photographs, placed on the page near the text discussing them. The story of Nadar's life, and at times he did some astounding things, is actually difficult for Begley to fill out into a full-sized book. Even with all of the illustrations and anecdotes and history, Nadar has died at almost ninety years old before 200 pages. The rest of the book seems very much like filler--a chapter called "Après Nadar" and an appendix consisting of autographs and sketches from one of Nadar's guest books, which gives Begley an excuse to quickly summarize the lives and scandals of lesser-known figures of the day whose names mean little to most people now (Pierre Joigneaux, Étienne Arago, Constantin Guys, and many others). But most people who are learning about Nadar for the first time will be entertained by this introduction to a man who seems in many ways to be quite modern, a mix of Andy Warhol, Elon Musk, and Kardashian self-promoter.


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