When I Was a Photographer
by félix nadar
translated by eduardo cadava and liana theodoratou
mit, 336 pages, $24.95
élix Nadar was not a man easily pinned down. Though he’s on the books as one of the most important photographers of the nineteenth century—both for photographing the leading French writers of his era and for making advancements in camera technology—Nadar’s life spanned a number of diverse occupations, from caricaturist to balloonist. Fittingly for a man with so many interests, When I Was a Photographer, a collection of Nadar’s journals, lacks any narrative or generic coherence, though they never cease to be anything less than fascinating. At once a memoir and a history book, the journals give an unusually specific account of a photographer’s life that should be of value to the casual photographer and the serious historian alike.
With a penchant for detailing life’s minutiae, Nadar springs from one topic to the next. A thorough genealogy of the fathers and forefathers of photography is succeeded by Nadar’s quaint foray into beekeeping. The scientific exactitude of Nadar’s photographic processes above and below ground leads into a droll and unscientific rumination on the differing psychologies of male and female clients at the photo studio.
It’s perhaps a bit much to ask for thematic coherence of a man’s diary, but Eduardo Cadava, co-translating the text into its first English rendering with Liana Theodoratou, posits a unifying theory in his introduction: The key to understanding Nadar’s writing lies not so much in the “Photographer” of the title as in the “When.” Even though photography is at the core of nearly every chapter of the text, the yarns Nadar spins out from that common center embody a photographic approach to history, rather than the other way around.
Nadar seems to want to commit his life—experiences, observations, memories, and all—to an exhaustive record, in much the same way that a photograph aims to capture a fleeting moment of time in comprehensive detail. At times, Nadar’s excessive prose frustrates, reaching a comic climax in his digression on “dynamography, chronography, desnigraphy, hypography, calorigraphy—all the graphies,” apropos of absolutely nothing in an entry on “The New President of the French Society of Photography.” But by and large, his exhaustive lexical approach is endearing. More important to Nadar than making grand advancements in the field of photography (though he certainly did so, with his groundbreaking experiments in aerial and subterranean image making) is preserving the transient memory of otherwise trivial details, for it is the sum of such small things that constitutes a life.
This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of First Things.
Tim Markatos is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.