One of my all-time favorite artists, Nadar photographed every available subject. His portraits included one of the most famous of Baudelaire, notable for the way it portrays him defiant, coat on, and ready for the business of solitary investigation. But one of the ways he’s most connected with the promotion of vision and technology was through his flights (in 1863) in the hot air balloon he christened “Le Geant.” The attention he garnered from his aerial photographs was unprecedented. A brief Googling turns up numerous American accounts, including articles in the New York Times and Harpers about an ill-fated crash of the vessel in November of that year. Although the balloon capers seem like mere publicity stunts (and Nadar, who worshiped money and fame didn’t ignore their value as such), they had a much bigger impact.
Robert Hughes’ program, “The Shock of the New” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByIlGYQxUMY&feature=related) describes the impact of the view from the Eiffel Tower as creating a new perspective of the city and on man’s view of himself. Seen from the sky downwards, the viewer meets a landscape of flat patterns and absent men. Well before its construction in 1889, Nadar took the new mass media by storm with the narratives of Le Geant, and the photos taken from up high. Both city and country were small abstract ciphers, and one can only imagine the bafflement of the average Parisian. Big vistas on ground had only recently been built by Haussman and and the impression of the urban swarm as up close and personal no doubt dominated in the average mind.
In the mid-nineties I recall seeing a many of these photos at the Porte de Vanves flea market. The fact that the 4x 6, post-card sized views were so numerous is a testament to just how popular they were. I still regret not buying them, but alas it was the end of the day and the wallet was emptied. They’d hold a special place in my 19th-century photo collection if I had.