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Journal Article

"When I Was a Photographer": Nadar and History

Stephen Bann
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (Dec., 2009), pp. 95-111
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621442
Page Count: 17
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"When I Was a Photographer": Nadar and History
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Abstract

This paper takes as its point of departure Roland Barthes's proposition in La Chambre claire that the nineteenth century "invented History and Photography," that the era of photography is one of revolutions, and that the photograph's "testimony" has diminished our capacity to think in terms of "duration." Barthes also asserts that the French photographer Nadar is "the greatest photographer in the world," but takes no account of Nadar's acute receptivity to the history of the nineteenth century. The paper argues that, though he fully recognized (and indeed documented) the unique properties of the new medium, Nadar himself was overridingly preoccupied with assessing photography's role in a period when war and revolution were compromising the onward march of social and economic progress. Throughout his life, he was committed to the progressive ideas that he assimilated while growing up in Paris and Lyon in the 1830s. He wrote of the emergence of a Bohemian culture in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and remained keenly aware of the visual impressions that he had received in his youth from the popular lithographs of the pre-photographic era. He became a supporter of the artistic avant-garde, which led him to purchase important work by the landscape painter Daubigny. In his art criticism, he excoriated the later portraits of Ingres, which might have competed with his own reputation as a photographic portraitist. Yet, in his admiration for Delacroix, he emphasized the lengthy initiation necessary for the appreciation of the master's paintings, implying a direct contrast with the "instantaneity" of the photographic process. By common consent, the period of Nadar's great success as a portraitist, which secured his posthumous fame, occupied a short phase in his career as a whole. But his writings show that it was his lively intuition of the wider ramifications of photography that impelled him to move on—experimenting successfully with the first aerial photographs and documenting the catacombs of Paris with the aid of magnesium lighting. Though he could never experience television, he left a narrative in which the feasibility of transmitting images over a distance was presented as being startlingly realistic. In short, Nadar's published work can be viewed as a sustained meditation on the interaction of historical experience and the media, which not only records but anticipates photography's impact within the wider framework of visual culture.

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