If you ever happened to take a college course in 19th-century French literature — this would be before you bowed to parental pressure and switched your major to business or pre-med — you might have come across the name “Nadar,” albeit in the tiny type of a picture credit. The most celebrated French photographer of his time, Nadar memorialized Alexandre Dumas , Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Honoré Daumier, Jules Verne and scores of other celebrated writers and artists. Because of his pioneering camera work, we can still look upon the haunting, charismatic beauty of a 20-year-old actress, then virtually unknown, who would eventually become, as Adam Begley writes, “the most famous woman in the world”: Sarah Bernhardt, the divine Sarah. Nadar’s even more magnificent portrait of his wife in old age earned the enraptured praise of the critic Roland Barthes. It is certainly one of the loveliest photographs of all time.

“The Great Nadar,” by Adam Begley (Tim Duggan Books)

“The Great Nadar” lacks the obvious commercial appeal of Begley’s previous biography, a capacious, revealing life of the novelist John Updike, so that it comes across as a labor of love. Yet the word “labor” hardly characterizes the suavity, swiftness and economy of its text. The book is a pleasure to read, though one could almost buy it just for the pictures.

Born in 1820, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon adopted “Nadar” as a nom de plume when he and his pals were struggling young writers and painters. Henry Murger would depict their hardscrabble existence in the novel “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème” (which later provided the plot for Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème”). According to Nadar’s friend Charles Bataille they lived in a dubious quarter largely populated by the kind of women who “were likely to lead you quickly and directly to the definitive goal of all human experience.”

Nadar briefly enjoyed the intimate companionship of Haitian-born Jeanne Duval, who later became Baudelaire’s mistress (and the subject of some of his greatest poems). Another of Nadar’s close friends, the poet Nerval, would walk his pet lobster in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, using a length of blue-silk ribbon as a leash. Nerval said he kept the crustacean as a pet because it did not make noise and because it knew the secrets of the deep.

As Begley stresses, Nadar possessed irrepressible energy, as well as a flair for friendship and self-promotion. Initially, he styled himself a man of letters, turning out articles and reviews, founding his own (short-lived) magazine The Book of Gold and even publishing a now-forgotten novel. Begley sums up this last as tracking “the fortunes of a quartet of penniless lads living, when we meet them, in a garret.” As they say, write what you know.

As it turned out, however, Nadar first made his mark as an illustrator, producing celebrity caricatures for major Parisian periodicals. He grew so successful that he established an Andy Warhol-like “factory” to churn out drawings that he would sign, in a Napoleonic gesture, with the swirling initial “N.” Later, his photography business would employ as many as 50 people, Nadar only deigning to go behind the camera for celebrities and friends.

Ernestine Nadar, photographed by her husband (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

The actress Sarah Bernhardt, photographed by Nadar (J. Paul Getty Museum)

The photographer easily wearied of what the French call “le train-train quotidien” — the daily grind. He needed challenges, excitement, even adversaries — and aeronautics would supply these. At 37, Nadar made his first balloon ascent, quickly growing convinced that only a heavier-than-air flying machine, probably one with a propeller, could ever properly navigate the skies. Balloons were simply playthings of the wind. As a publicity stunt, he nonetheless constructed the Giant. This was a huge balloon that “had a wicker cabin built on two levels with six separate compartments and room enough for twenty on its observation deck.” It boasted a lavatory and bunk beds, as well as a printing press, darkroom and a wine cellar. On its second flight, the gigantic air bag was caught in a gale and nearly killed its passengers, including Nadar and his wife. There was no real way to steer the thing.

The author Adam Begley (Jane Berridge)

Here Begley could be very mildly faulted on his research. While he duly notes Nadar’s friendship with Jules Verne, mentions the latter’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon ” and points out that the hero of “From the Earth to the Moon” is named Ardan (an anagram of Nadar), there is no mention of “Robur the Conqueror.” This Verne novel addresses, indeed hammers away at, precisely those issues about the future of flight that obsessed Nadar. Its climax depicts an air battle between the Albatross, the piratical Robur’s flying machine, and a huge, state-of-the art balloon called the Go-Ahead.

It seems only just that Nadar should live long enough to see the advent of modern aircraft. Shortly before his death in 1910, just shy of his 90th birthday, he was able to telegraph his congratulations when Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel in a monoplane.

Yet Begley doesn’t end “The Great Nadar” here. In a substantial appendix, titled “Mementos of Nadar’s World,” he presents a gallery of the notables who visited the photographer’s studio. These included the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the former French prime minister François Guizot and the journalist Alphonse Karr, now mainly remembered for his immortal epigram, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Begley quotes from the funny and eccentric comments these and other clients left in Nadar’s guest book. The result makes for a delightful close to a concise and delightful biography.

Michael Dirda regularly reviews for The Washington Post.

the great nadar
The Man Behind the Camera

By Adam Begley

Tim Duggan. 248 pp. $28