By Felix Nadar (Translated by Eduardo Cadava & Liana Theodoratou)

The MIT Press. 274 pages. £17.95. ISBN 978-0-262-02945-2 (hardback)


By Siegfried Kracauer (Translated by Gwenda David & Eric Mosbacher)

Zone Books. 416 pages. £17.95. ISBN 978-1-890951-31-3 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There’s a wonderful Daumier drawing of Nadar in his balloon. His top hat is floating off and he’s hanging on to his camera as the basket tips dangerously. The drawing is called “Nadar elevating photography to the height of art.” Daumier, as the title implies, was not a believer in the idea that photography could in any way be classified as an art. He wasn’t alone in 19th Century Paris in this respect, though other artists were beginning to see that photography might at least have value in enabling them to record people and places in a way that could then be used as a basis for their painting. This perhaps didn’t indicate that it had any artistic qualities in itself, but it was an acknowledgement of it providing certain useful services. Nadar blithely carried on once he’d been bitten by the photography bug and largely ignored the criticisms levelled against what he was doing. As he remarks in the opening paragraph of When I Was a Photographer, “by nature we are hostile to everything that disconcerts our received ideas and disturbs our habits.”

He had not always been a photographer. Born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon in Paris in 1820, he was initially a medical student but dropped out when his father died, and turned to journalism, working as a caricaturist and a novelist writing for serial publication in various newspapers and magazines such as the well-known Le Charivari.  He started two probably short-lived journals and mixed with a bohemian crowd that included Baudelaire, Gerard de Nerval, and others. He was also for a time on the fringes of the poverty-stricken group known as “The Water Drinkers” that clustered around the novelist Henry Murger.

But by 1854 he had opened his first photography studio, and that was to occupy his attention for the rest of his life. It might therefore be expected that When I Was a Photographer will provide a chronicle of the years between 1854 and 1900, when it was first published in Paris. Readers expecting this will probably be disappointed, as will those who look for any detailed technical accounts of the development of photography. What we get instead is a thoroughly entertaining ramble through various episodes in Nadar’s life, some of which can, at first, appear to have little to do with photography.

In one chapter, entitled Homicidal Photography” we get a long account of a murder that shocked Paris. A pharmacist and his wife have a small shop that they struggle to keep going, partly it is said because of the husband’s addiction to gambling and other vices. The pharmacist hardly ever being there, an “apprentice” is taken on. He’s young, good-looking, and the neglected wife inevitably starts an affair with him. The “apprentice” gets as much money from her as he can, and then disappears. She confesses to the husband and says she’ll help him track down her lover so that they can get their revenge by killing him. She traces the miscreant, says she forgives him and wants to start their affair again, and lures him to a house in the suburbs by telling him she has money there. The husband is lying in wait and the young man is murdered and his body dumped in the river. Some time later it surfaces and is found. Photographs are taken, a journalist gets copies, and they’re put on display and arouse a great deal of anger against the pharmacist and his wife who are convicted and imprisoned.

Nadar, when narrating these events, makes comments about morality, the power of photography, and the way in which bourgeois tolerance and civility can soon break down. He refers to an incident after the collapse of the Commune when a band of prisoners were being marched away, and “a very beautiful person, with a very respectable air, believe me!” shrieked “Tear their nails out!” It’s typical of Nadar’s writing that he moves easily from reflections on the uses of photography to memories of events he had witnessed. In another chapter, where he discusses the differences between the male and female clientele who visited his studio, he diverts into a lament for the decline of good manners: “Some old families still try to keep and transmit received traditions, but everything wears out, and very soon we will wonder what could well be the nature of that politeness whose evocation would find nothing to respond to it in the new order of things.”

I’m perhaps giving too much of an impression of a lack of direct comments on his work as a photographer. And that’s unfair, because when he talks about the problems of aerial photography, Nadar being a pioneer in that field, he’s informative. Likewise, when he discusses photographing in the catacombs in Paris. Problems of lighting, of obtaining clear images, and such matters are explored. But he seems always alert to the practical uses of photography. When he went up in a balloon and took photographs it helped resolve matters of land disputes. And when he was involved with ballooning he pioneered the use of balloons to transmit messages as he moved mail in and out of Paris during the siege by the Prussians in 1870. In a way it’s possible to see that Nadar was never bothered about whether or not what he was doing was “art.” He certainly helped provide a record of 19th Century Paris and its personalities, but did he do that consciously or was it just a matter of making a living at something that intrigued him technically?

There is a chapter called “The Primitives of Photography” where Nadar rolls out numerous names of pioneering photographers who, to a non-specialist, may not mean a great deal. They can be researched, of course, if one has the desire to do so. In the same chapter he tells how, once photography became established and the necessary equipment relatively easily available, “everyone unqualified or wishing to be qualified called themselves a photographer: the professional student who had neglected to appear on time on payday, the tenor singing in a café who lost his voice, the concierge seized with artistic nostalgia – they all called themselves artistic! – Failed painters, unsuccessful sculptors, rushed in, and we even noticed a glowing cook.” It’s an amusing diatribe against people who, thinking that the techniques were simple to learn, imagined they could easily master them successfully within a short space of time. And become famous and/or rich with a camera.

Because Nadar’s book is so episodic it’s possible to go on quoting his entertaining and informative anecdotes and comments endlessly. As I said earlier, he talks about photography, but at the same time builds up a vivid picture of the Paris that he knew intimately, with references to poets, painters, politicians, utopian thinkers like Cabet and Fourier, long-forgotten streets and buildings, and the cafes and the characters who frequented them. When I Was a Photographer is one of the most engaging books I’ve recently read, and is thoroughly idiosyncratic and amusing. It has a useful chronology and informative notes.        

There’s a Nadar photograph in Siegried Kracauer’s Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time that shows the composer smiling at the camera in a sly sort of way. Somewhere in his book Nadar refers to Offenbach as “irreverent,” and it’s a description that fits the person Siegried Kracauer writes about. I suppose we now tend to think of Offenbach only in term of the operettas, or those of them that produced the “Barcarolle” from The Tales of Hoffmann or the tune from Orpheus in the Underworld that is famous as the “Can-Can.” Aficionados of operettas or Offenbach might well know more of the melodies he wrote, and which in their day were whistled in the streets of Paris, but the ones I’ve mentioned are surely the most famous among the general public.

So, who was Offenbach? To start with he wasn’t French, but a German Jew who was sent to the French capital by his father to further his musical career. Jakob Offenbach, a talented cellist, initially studied at the Conservatoire but soon left to join a theatre orchestra. He shared a garret with two brothers “in the rue des Martyrs, on the way to Montmartre, in one of those dwellings whose upper regions have always been associated with poverty, the smell of cooking, and dreams of future glory.” It would take some time before he could break out of the life of a theatre orchestra musician who also sometimes gave cello recitals in the various salons around the city. He wasn’t always paid for performing as a soloist, but it was a way to get noticed in a Paris “swarming with virtuosos, all of them consumed with ambition; the market was glutted and competition so intense that extreme measures were necessary to draw attention to oneself and rise above the throng.”

When Siegfried Kracauer’s book was first published in the 1930s it received some criticism for the way in which it went into detail about the social and political movement of the period when Offenbach was active. But it seems to me that this was necessary in order to arrive at an understanding of why he eventually became such a popular composer. His music reflected the mood of the times, as we shall see. And Kracauer proposes that it did far more than that.

But first of all, he had to struggle to have anything he wrote accepted by the theatres. And when he opened a small establishment of his own he was hampered by laws which restricted the number of performer he could have on stage. In the meantime, he composed songs, some of which achieved a degree of popularity. And he mingled with what might be termed Boulevard society. Kracauer looks in depth at this society, which can be called bohemian, though it wasn’t the bohemia of starving poets and painters as described by Henry Murger. It included some journalists and young men of fashion who had the time and money to indulge themselves with gambling, drinking, and other pastimes. Kracauer says: “This was the period when the flaneur originated, the aimless saunterer who sought to conceal the gaping void around him by imbibing a thousand casual impressions. Shopwindow displays, prints, new buildings, smart clothes, elegant equipages, newspaper sellers – he indiscriminately absorbed the spectacle of life that went on all around him.” Offenbach certainly wasn’t a one of them – he was always far too busy for idling – but it’s Kracauer’s contention that “It was no accident that Offenbach and the Boulevards were contemporary……on the Boulevards he found his fellows and the atmosphere of liberty that he required and consequently felt at home.”

The political situation in France, and Paris in particular, hardly seems to have touched Offenbach. The February 1848 revolution when the bourgeois king, Louis-Philippe, was overthrown, and the consequent “June Days,” when the unemployed and others took to the barricades and were savagely suppressed by the army, appear to have made little impression on him. When universal suffrage was curtailed and press freedom restricted, he continued composing. And when, in 1851, Louis Napoleon, carried out a coup-d’etat, Offenbach was about to start on a period of success and popularity.

If, as Kracauer claims, “Louis Napoleon saw clearly the need for banishing all sense of realism, all capability of seeing things as they really were,” then forms of entertainment which appeared to depend on frivolity and a lack  of perspective were certainly going to be in demand. Offenbach’s frothy operettas were about to have a field day with audiences that wanted to be amused and not asked to worry too much about politics or social matters. What was the use of pondering over things one could do nothing about? Kracauer points out that, although there is satire (of power and rulers) inherent in the plot of Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan, it is overcome by gaiety: “The critical function of the humour is only incidental.” And Offenbach “proclaims the gospel of pleasure,” something his audiences welcomed as speaking for their own feelings. They didn’t want to be told that they were politically impotent. Enjoyment was what they wanted. Offenbach’s music, with its “innocent sweetness, a freshness as of the scent of wild flowers” (Heinrich Heine’s description) suited their mood.

Offenbach was well-regarded and his work appealed to audiences beyond Paris. He made acclaimed appearances in London and Berlin. But he was a poor businessman and had to keep ahead of bailiffs. As Kracauer puts it, he “resorted to all the all the expedients to which debtors have had recourse ever since debtors began.” A lavish production like Orpheus in the Underworld wasn’t a success when it opened, and an influential critic, Jules Janin, attacked it for profaning “Holy and Glorious Antiquity” in its irreverent use of “venerated figures” like Orpheus and Eurydice. It did eventually begin to attract audiences, especially after Offenbach and one of his librettists pointed to inconsistencies in Janin’s arguments. Was he actually influenced by factors other than the alleged mis-use of those “venerated figures?” Kracauer suggests that, in fact, Orpheus in the Underworld contained thinly-disguised comments on the current situation in France: “In short, the operetta made a mock of all the glamour that surrounded the appearance of power. Behind all the impressive display of the Second Empire the old appetites and lusts lived on.” Janin may have been more concerned to defend the status quo than “Holy and Glorious Antiquity.” To quote Kracauer again: “The operetta was denounced as immoral only because the prevalent immorality objected violently to being shown up.”

Despite his achievements with operettas, Offenbach had always wanted to move into what was seen as the superior world of the opera. But when he composed Rheinnixen, complete with soldiers, village maidens, ruined castles, and a “German Fatherland Song” he had originally written in 1848, it was a failure and was taken off after eight performances. He did manage to pull one praised melody out of the wreckage and later used it as the “Barcarolle” in The Tales of Hoffman. It perhaps proved what many people said, that he should stick to what he did best – the operettas.

With La Vie Parisienne, Offenbach produced what Kracauer describes as “that most enchanting of all paeans of praise that have ever been written to any city,” and instead “of hitting at the present through the past, Offenbach for the first time used the present as his raw material.” Furthermore: “What made it really typical of Offenbach’s time was its depiction of the turmoil produced by liberal capitalism.” Kracauer’s analysis of the plot of La Vie Parisienne is well worth reading, and he insists on its “democratic feeling” and the way in which it “does not give the disadvantage to the lower classes.” It seems likely that many in the audiences that flocked to the operetta did not pay a great deal of attention to its underlying themes, preferring instead to imagine they were viewing a “dream world,” but in Kracauer’s words: “Had their eyes been open, they would have recognised that La Vie Parisienne held up a mirror to the fantastic life they were leading.” 

As opposition to Louis Napoleon’s dictatorship grew in the late-1860s there was a corresponding decline in the importance of the operetta: “Thoroughly ambiguous as it was, it had fulfilled a revolutionary function under the dictatorship: that of scourging corruption and authoritarianism, and holding up the principle of freedom. To be sure, its satire had been clothed in a garment of frivolity and concealed in an atmosphere of intoxication, in accordance with the requirements of the Second Empire. But the frivolity went deeper than the world of fashionable Bohemia could see.” And Kracauer further added: “At a time when the bourgeoisie was politically stagnant and the Left was impotent, Offenbach’s operettas had been the most definite form of revolutionary protest. They released gusts of laughter, which shattered the compulsory silence and lured the public towards opposition, while seeming only to amuse them.”

With the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and the brutality that followed the defeat of the Commune, Offenbach’s career began to falter as a new atmosphere established itself in the 1870s. Some of his productions failed and he was declared bankrupt in 1875. He continued to write music and had a success in 1879 with La Fille du Tambour-Major. And he worked on what was to be one of his most lasting compositions, The Tales of Hoffmann. It was due to be the first new production of the winter season, but Offenbach died on the 5th October, 1880, and so missed the opening night.

It may well have been true that most of the satire, and the implied, if not directly stated, criticism of those in power that Kracauer points to in the operettas, came from the librettists and not so much from Offenbach, though he must have been aware of what they were doing and approved of it. Or at least accepted it, provided it was done by suggestion and not with open comments. He had, after all, presumably come up with the original ideas for the directions the operettas would take. Kracauer doesn’t offer any information about Offenbach’s political sympathies, and his analyses of the operettas usually focus on the plots rather than the music. As I mentioned earlier, Offenbach doesn’t appear to have been moved in a radical way by such matters as the 1848 events or the Commune. He probably had liberal views in general, but seemed happy to generally go along with whatever the current situation was. His interests were primarily musical and he never stopped writing his operettas and other works.

Siegfriend Kracauer’s account of the social and political situation in 19th Century Paris (everything seems to happen there rather than in the country as a whole) is brilliantly intertwined with the details of Offenbach’s life and his music. It has been suggested that his book can be read alongside Walter Benjamin’s stimulating, if incomplete, The Arcades Project, for its evocation of 19th Century Paris. Benjamin’s book is, course, essentially a compilation of fragments culled from a variety of sources (including Kracauer) whereas Kracauer’s has a well-constructed narrative flow.

Both the Nadar and Kracauer are reprints of earlier books, originally published in 1900 and 1937, respectively, and MIT Press and Zone Books are to be congratulated for making them available again. Taken together they provide a fascinating picture of aspects of a turbulent, but productive period in French history.