FOR A MEDIUM SO RESOLUTELY grounded in the particulars of the there and then-what was in front of the lens when the shutter clicked-photography can, in the hands of a master, remain eternally in the present. Take those mid-19th-century Parisians in the Nadar exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (through July 9). In his earthily warm and exquisitely detailed salted paper prints the antique becomes contemporary. The 20-year-old Sarah Bernhardt is as pensively beautiful as Winona Ryder about to play in "Little Women." The celebrated mime character Pierrot, captured in a state of "surprise," could have just discovered a parking ticket on his windshield.
Nadar's great pictures started back in photography's toddlerhood - about 15 years after its invention in 1839 - when you still had to work like hell to get an image at all. Difficulty begets a certain visual integrity. But the perfection of the collodion emulsion process in 1852 also made it possible to take a portrait in two seconds. Using arrestingly minimal backdrops, Nadar posed his subjects with an uncommon individuality and got them to relax (he sometimes snapped the shutter while they were unaware). "Today photography gives us a drawing that M. Ingres wouldn't have delivered in a hundred sittings," Nadar commented in 1855. And, he might have added, one that looks more like a live, awake human being than a rendering of a statue.
Nadar was born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon in Paris in 1820 and was initially interested in studying medicine. (He seems to have remained interested, photographing such medical subjects as a hermaphrodite's genitals. Nadar designated such plates "for a purely scientific use not to be put on display," but the Met is displaying two of them.) Toumachon plunged into the bohemian life. The rules were: don't pay the rent, leave through the window and buy everything on credit. Like a present-day graffitist, he also invented a tag-trying Tournadar, Chondar, then Nadarchon and Nadard before landing on his compact, catchy pseudonym. Nadar opted out of actually fighting in the popular uprising of February 1848. Feeling guilty, he tried to atone by going off to liberate Poland the next month. The expedition failed, but Nadar came home with stories galore to tell in the Paris cafes.
Originally a caricaturist, Nadar tried to market a poster-size "pantheon" of artistic luminaries in 1854; it sold only 136 copies. Luckily, his younger brother, Adrien, asked him to help save his failing portrait-photography studio. Records don't indicate precisely which early photographs were Nadar's alone and which were collaborations. But it's clear Nadar was the real talent behind what were once admiringly called "portraits A la Rembrandt." Nadar soon found himself with a wife, a son and financial responsibility for his wife's ample wardrobe. When the commercially successful studio partnership dissolved, he sued Adrien over the right to the name "Nadar." Felix won, and built a huge new studio on the fashionable Boulevard des Capucines.
Unfortunately, Nadar grew bored and often delegated portrait work to his assistants while he went off to photograph the catacombs and sewers of Paris. Passionate about flying, Nadar helped build the biggest balloon of its time (appropriately named Geant), and took some of the first aerial views of Paris. By the mid-1860s, Nadar's best photographs were behind him. Eventually his son, Paul, took over as the studio's "artistic director" and kept it going by selling modern prints of Nadar's photographs until his own death, in 1939.
Photographs by "Nadar" are now everywhere, the catalog warns, but only a few were actually made by the master. Prints made via an inter-negative from an original print are discernibly harsher and less detailed. (Almost all of the nearly 100 prints in the Met show are Nadar's; some of them haven't been on view for more than a century.) In many ways -the invention of a new kind of photographic portraiture, a brief period of startling work and the deterioration of everything into a factory enterprise Nadar foreshadowed Andy Warhol. Except that Nadar, at his peak a hundred years before pop art, never had an ironic bone in his body. Which is why you can look at any one of the genuine Nadars in this exhibition for a lot longer than 15 minutes.