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

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

Pioneering 19th-Century Photographer Félix Nadar on Men, Women, and the Single Most Important Factor in Becoming a Commercially 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.


Adrienne Rich on What a Rare Blue Bird Taught Her About the Confluence of Art, Science, and Politics in Human Life

In praise of the moments when “a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.”

Adrienne Rich on What a Rare Blue Bird Taught Her About the Confluence of Art, Science, and Politics in Human Life

A great many brilliant creators can point to a single formative experience — an epiphany-like encounter with truth, a momentary glimpse of beauty in its highest form — that furnished a certain understanding of the world, steering them toward their chosen field of endeavor. For Patti Smith, it was a swan at the lake; for Pablo Neruda, a hand through the fence, for Virginia Woolf, a flower mound; for Anne Truitt, a Picasso painting; for Albert Einstein, his first compass; for James Baldwin, a reflection in a puddle.

Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a brilliant poet and a woman of formidable political conviction — relays one such revelatory experience in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library), an altogether spectacular collection of her letters, diary entries, dreams, and critical reflections on literature.

Rich recounts coming home from an errand to discover a pair of enormous beating wings lifting off from her deck — not a giant gull, as she reflexively surmised, nor even a raven, but a majestic Great Blue Heron. She writes:

I had never seen one from below or from so near: usually from a car window on a road above a small bay or inlet. I had not seen one many times at all. I was not sure. Poised there on the peak of the roof, it looked immense, fastidious, apparently calm. It turned a little; seemed to gaze as far into the blue air as the curve of the earth would allow; took a slow, ritualistic, provocative step or two. I could see the two wirelike plumes streaming from the back of its head.

I walked quietly into the garden toward the fence between the two houses, speaking to it in a low voice. I told it that I thanked it for having come; that I wanted it to be safe. I moved backward again a little to look at it better. Suddenly it was in air, had flapped out of sight.

Great Blue Heron (New York Public Library public domain archive)
Great Blue Heron (New York Public Library public domain archive)

This dreamlike encounter sent her on a spiraling inquiry into the cultural climate surrounding the magnificent bird — not just how a century of rapid so-called progress has impacted its ecology, but “what has been happening in our social fabric, our emotional and sensual life, during that century.” Pulling a guide to Pacific Coast wildlife from her bookcase, Rich found herself mesmerized by the names we’ve given species by some seemingly arbitrary agreement — names like Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, and Ghost Shrimp.

In a complement to the notion that naming confers dignity upon existence, Rich considers the general use of language in human life and its particular application in giving names:

I began to think about the names, beginning with the sound and image delivered in the name “Great Blue Heron,” as tokens of a time when naming was poetry, when connections between things and living beings, or living things and human beings, were instinctively apprehended. By “a time” I don’t mean any one historical or linguistic moment or period. I mean all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses.

With an eye to the parallels between science, poetry, and politics, Rich reflects on how names can both dignify and objectify, grant power and take it away:

This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities — poetry, science, politics — triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives. Instead, over centuries, they have become separated — poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry…

The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol. Wandered inadvertently or purposefully inland, maybe drought-driven, to a backyard habitat, it is a bird, Ardea herodias, whose form, dimensions, and habits have been described by ornithologists, yet whose intangible ways of being and knowing remain beyond my — or anyone’s — reach. If I spoke to it, it was because I needed to acknowledge in words the rarity and signifying power of its appearance, not because I thought it had come to me. The tall, foot-poised creature had a life, a place of its own in the manifold, fragile system that is this coastline; a place of its own in the universe. Its place, and mine, I believe, are equal and interdependent. Neither of us — woman or bird — is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that.

With her characteristic mastery of nuance, Rich reframes her encounter. The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol and it isn’t an epiphany, either — it isn’t a means to her own artistic ends, nor a gift from the universe intended to serve her personal enlightenment. It is, rather, an agent in that attentive aliveness which makes poetry, makes art, makes life worth living. With her gift for strumming multiple cultural strings in one melodic stroke, Rich writes:

A Mohawk Indian friend says she began writing “after a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley, when a Bald Eagle flew in front of her car, sat in a tree, and instructed her to write.” Very little in my own heritage has suggested to me that a wild living creature might come to bring me a direct personal message. And I know too that a complex humor underlies my friend’s statement (I do not mean it is a joke). I am suspicious — first of all, in myself — of adopted mysticisms, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other “exotic” ways of understanding. I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.

What Is Found There is a magnificent, sublimely layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on how silence fertilizes the imagination, what “truth” really means, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, and her terrific tribute to Marie Curie.


The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

“The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity.”

The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

Henry David Thoreau considered the poet — a term he used broadly, not unlike we use the term artist today — humanity’s mystic laureate; the supreme teller of truth, champion of beauty, and sensemaker of reality. “The poet,” he wrote in contemplating the difference between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, “will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position.” But what position, exactly, does the poet — does the artist — hold today in the collective remembering we call culture?

That’s what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explores in one of the many marvelous pieces in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — the prose collection of Szymborska’s responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious period of reading in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.


In a magnificently centrifugal riff on a book about the history of the Near East in antiquity, Szymborska considers the singular inner life of the poet — and perhaps she, like Thoreau, intends for this to extrapolate to the artist in the largest sense — as the necessary bridge between our most refined artistic achievements and our most primitive nature:

The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity. Scientific explanations of the world don’t make much of an impression on him. He is an animist and a fetishist, who believes in the secret powers sleeping in all things, and who is convinced that he may stir these forces with the help of a few well-chosen words. The poet may even have seven cum laude degrees — but at the moment when he sits down to write a poem, his rationalist school uniform begins to pinch beneath the arms. He wriggles and wheezes, undoes first one button, then another, and finally leaps out of his clothing completely, to stand exposed before all as a savage with a ring through his nose. Yes, yes, a savage, since what else can you call a person who talks in verse to the dead and the unborn, to trees, to birds, and even to lamps and table legs, except perhaps an idiot?

She contrasts the role of the poet with that of the scholar in the craftsmanship of common experience we call history:

Let us return to the subject of history after this protracted introduction. The poet is compromised by his backwardness in this area as well. The past for him remains a history of wars and concrete individuals. Whereas for today’s historians, especially those preoccupied with constructing grand syntheses, wars and individuals are a secondary concern at best. For these historians, the prime historical movers are the means of production, the conditions of property-ownership, and the climate. Sporadic events don’t play a major role in the historical process. You may either bypass them completely or present them in such a way that they don’t distract the reader from more important matters. Phrases specially furbished for such purposes assist him here: “the achievement of supremacy,” “the loss of domination,” “the suppression of separatist tendencies,” “the sudden hampering of development,” and so on. Blood doesn’t drip from such words, the sparks of fires don’t scatter from them. It’s no longer a treacherous assault, ambush, slaughter, rape, and repression. It’s simply that country X “found itself within the range of foreign invaders” or, better, “of newcomers” or, better yet, “within range of the culture of Y.” The language of historians strives for abstraction and has largely achieved it.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage adaptation of The Iliad and the Odyssey for young readers

Unlike the scholar, who is occupied with extracting from history the maximum amount of information, the poet is concerned not with the historical but with the eternal; not with information but with wisdom. (Lest we forget, the pursuit of wisdom in our age of information is all the more urgent today.) Szymborska captures this perfectly:

The historian calmly leafs through Gilgamesh, that most ancient epic of humankind, and immediately latches on to what he needs, i.e., “one of the earliest testaments to the formation of the state leadership’s social base.” The poet isn’t equipped to relish the epic for such reasons. Gilgamesh might just as well not exist for him if it holds only such information. But it does exist, because its titular hero mourns the death of his friend. One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being. For the poet this fact is of such momentous weight that it can’t be overlooked in even the most succinct historical synthesis. As I say, the poet can’t keep up, he lags behind. In his defense I can only say that someone’s got to straggle in the rear. If only to pick up what’s been trampled and lost in the triumphal procession of objective laws.

Complement the wholly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait,” then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.


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