The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Pioneering 19th-Century Photographer Félix Nadar on Gender and the Single Most Important Factor in Becoming a Successful Artist

Pioneering 19th-Century Photographer Félix Nadar on Gender and the Single Most Important Factor in Becoming a Successful Artist

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Félix Nadar (April 6, 1820–March 23, 1910), is best remembered as a trailblazing photographer. A champion of aeronautics, he became the first person to take an aerial photograph during a hot air balloon flight in 1858. Four years later, he pioneered artificial lighting in photography while working in the catacombs of Paris.

But Nadar was also an astute social, cultural, and psychological observer who recorded his observations with equal parts wit and wisdom in his underappreciated writings. Those writings are now collected by MIT Press in When I Was a Photographer (public library) — a delightful compendium, in which Nadar uses the lens of his primary work to reflect on broader subjects ranging from art and technology to urban planning to gender roles. Interwoven throughout his anecdotes are encounters with famous contemporaries like Gustave Doré, Jules Verne, Eugène Delacroix, and Honoré de Balzac, many of whom Nadar photographed.

Nadar's "Revolving" self-portrait, created more than 15 years before Muybridge began his famous motion studies.
Nadar’s “revolving” self-portrait, created more than 15 years before Muybridge began his influential motion studies.

In one particularly wonderful piece titled “Female and Male Clients,” Nadar counters a number of gender stereotypes with empirical evidence from his practice as a photographer — evidence both tremendously comical and rather poignant — and concludes with some of the wisest advice ever given on what it takes to become a successful artist-entrepreneur, applicable to every field of creative endeavor and true in every era.

Taking to its ultimate extreme Italo Calvino’s memorable assertion that “the line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow,” Nadar begins with an all too common and tragicomic phenomenon most of us have encountered:

So good is everyone’s opinion of his or her physical qualities that the first impression of every model before the proofs of his or her portrait is almost inevitably disappointment and recoil… Some people have the hypocritical modesty to conceal their shock under an appearance of indifference, but do not believe them.

Although we since supplanted the era of proofs with the instant gratification of the smartphone camera, the same psychological principle is at work every time you witness someone retake the same selfie over and over in recurring dissatisfaction with the result. But, contrary to cultural stereotypes, Nadar argues that this vanity is far more common in men than it is in women — something he observed again and again in his photography studio. He writes of a frequent phenomenon in his coupled clients:

Nine times, I would even say eleven times out of ten, you will see that the wife is absorbed by the portraits of her husband, while the husband, no less hypnotized but by his own image, seems miles away from even thinking of the image of his other half.

This observation has been repeated too many times, and with mathematical precision, not to deserve to be at the head of these notes.

Studio portrait of the trailblazing black equestrian rider Selika Lazevski (Nadar, 1891)
Nadar’s studio portrait of the trailblazing black equestrian rider Selika Lazevski (1891)

Nadar extrapolates:

We have attributed to women the reputation of coquetry … but this constant solicitude of the effect provoked by our physical appearance, this coquetry, is even more reproachable in man himself…

Nothing in women can compare to the infatuation of certain men and to the constant concern about their “appearance” in the majority of them. Those who pretend to be the most detached in this matter are precisely the most affected.

I have found in men considered serious by everyone, in the most eminent personages, an anxiety, an extreme agitation, almost an agony in regard to the most insignificant details of their appearance…

A pinnacle of this “masculine infatuation pushed to the point of madness,” Nadar argues, is professional politicians’ practice of using their own likeness as the supreme means of persuasion and vehicle of propaganda:

Is it not the epitome of egotistical monomania, this hallucination that has no qualms about winning the approval of all hearts with the presentation of such mugs?

Some professions, Nadar notes, are predisposed to such vanity — actors, above all — but he encountered the most acute case of this “insanity of male coquetry in its paroxysm” in the most surprising of vocations: pastors. Nadar marvels:

Never — ever! have I encountered in female creatures a similar science of arrangements and cosmetic strategy: disgusting…

How could I forget especially that one who came to me once in all the splendor borrowed from mother Jezebel, so outrageously rosy-cheeked that I could not resist the temptation to check it out?

Under the pretext of removing from his cheek an atom of soot, I take my handkerchief, I touch, and I find — carmine! My creature turned pale…

"Pierrot Listening" (Nadar, 1854)
“Pierrot Listening” (Nadar, 1854)

This vanity, he cautions, can sometimes fester into rampant narcissism that causes clients to steamroll the artist. But every artist and entrepreneur, Nadar counsels, should learn to withstand such entitled behavior as much as possible in order to preserve the integrity of his or her endeavor:

Every artistic or commercial establishment will be treated by its clients in the same way that it treats them, and vice versa.

He tempers this idealism with a disclaimer of realism:

In truth, you would never be able to tame certain, often very charming monsters, whose naïvely ferocious egoism absolutely mocks everything that is not them.

He names among the most monstrous forms of such egotism the lack of punctuality. (I wholeheartedly agree — being late for an appointed meeting is a lamentable form of temporal entitlement and a most distasteful claim that your time is more valuable than the other person’s, triply so if you were the one to request the meeting in the first place.) Nadar writes:

There are some who seem to derive a secret and intimate enjoyment from doing harm, for example, by disrupting the entire schedule of a workday with a delay, and turning all the appointments upside down, like a deck of cards.

Against these monsters, the profession itself will provide you with more than one sufficient riposte, if not to have everything turn out well, at least to neutralize their harmfulness. Hold on first, without wavering, to a rigorous punctuality, and remain ruthless to all latecomers, whatever the cost. What you might have lost on one side will soon be regained on the other.

Nadar extrapolates from this particular practice of vocational hygiene broader advice on making an artistic endeavor commercially successful:

The whole question boils down for you into “doing well.” Always and still always look for the best, there and everywhere, and, preoccupied day and night with how to perfect your work, be stricter with yourself than with anybody else. Never let anything emerge from your studio that cannot defy the criticism of a rival.

To seek honor before profit is the surest means of finding profit with honor.

When I Was a Photographer brims with Nadar’s wisdom on a multitude of subjects and subtleties of creative work. Complement this particular fragment with David Hume on the upside of vanity and Werner Herzog’s advice to creative entrepreneurs, then revisit Susan Sontag’s pioneering 1977 treatise on photography, full of insights all the timelier today.

Published March 24, 2016




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