How an Eccentric French Balloonist Invented Aerial Photography

Nadar [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons 
Nadar [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons  / Nadar [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons 

When Félix Nadar decided he wanted to take photographs of Paris from a hot air balloon in 1855, the idea of aerial photography was, for pretty much everyone else, a faraway dream. In a list of “everything that is still missing from our needs as civilized people,” published for the World’s Fair at the time, “land surveying by the daguerreotype,” was included alongside “instantaneous vegetation,” “awnings to cover sidewalks,” something called an “air clock,” and “propelled stairs.” In his memoir, When I Was a Photographer, which will be published in English for the first time by MIT Press this fall with a translation by Princeton University’s Eduardo Cadava and New York University’s Liana Theodoratou, Nadar called the list “pure science fiction.”

But Nadar was a Renaissance man—a writer, actor, balloonist, caricaturist, inventor, and recently, a photographer—and once he had one of his "sudden bursts of enthusiasm,” he couldn't be stopped. Nadar had already chartered a balloon for his first photography flight and hired someone to pilot it when a friend told him, “You’ll spend the money that you don’t have, and break the neck you do have, for nothing!”

Nadar, clearly, wasn’t too worried about his neck, and he had every intention of making money on his venture, not losing it. His eventual goal was to map places from a bird’s-eye view with a precision “more faithful than those of [the creator of the first topographic map of France, Jacques] Cassini, more perfect than the maps of the Ministry of War.” If he tethered his balloon at 10 different stations a day and photographed the surface of a million square meters each time, he figured the surveying scheme could make him “almost a million a year.”

Nadar’s business plan was a motivating factor, but his real interest, he confesses, was in making history. Just as 1783 is known as the year man first floated above the surface of the Earth in a hot air balloon, Nadar hoped that 1855 would mark an equally noteworthy achievement in aeronautics.

During his initial flights, Nadar discovered the obstacles he’d have to overcome. Even though his balloon was tethered, it was constantly moving, and since exposure times could range anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, Nadar knew it would be difficult to get a good, clear image. Ever the inventor, he developed a “horizontal guillotine”—or a horizontal shutter—to open and close the lens “in one breath.”

The hurdles didn’t end there. Nadar was using the collodion wet plate process, which promised a higher resolution image than other processes, including the daguerreotype—but it required him to develop his plates in mid-air. Since, as the forward-thinking man wrote, “we are not yet in the blessed time when our descendants will carry a laboratory in their pocket,” he dutifully constructed an “aerial laboratory” in the basket. He hung a tent in the balloon’s circle, “impenetrable to the slightest diurnal ray,” and, since it was hot inside, he put the collodion and other chemical products in ice baths.

Still, despite his ingenuity, three years of experimentation produced only failure after frustrating failure. Every time his images turned out “a series of plates veiled by black soot, without a sign, without even the suspicion of an image,” and he couldn’t figure out the reason. Nadar was annoyed, but he refused to give up. “Of course, it must be an accident, just an accident in the laboratory, unexplained until now, an accident, which prolongs itself cruelly, indeed, and perseveres beyond the plausible—but about which I will be right! I will not budge: whatever the cost, I will continue my ascents until I get to the bottom of this,” he wrote.

This was easier said than done. Nadar paid for all his ascents out of his own pocket, and they exhausted his “more than meager resources.” As one winter approached, he was worried he would have to wait until spring to try again. Discouraged, he had begun putting off his photography attempts, opting instead to simply fly around aimlessly, like “the pastry chef who, for lack of customers, eats his own sweets.”

Nadar had flown to a village called Petit-Bicêtre, southwest of Paris, one day in October 1858, when he decided to make a photography attempt the next morning. But when he awoke, he found the day grey and overcast, with an icy drizzle falling. His balloon, which he had left out overnight, had collapsed, since the cold made the gas within condense. He decided to try to get up in the air anyway, by keeping the gas valve closed, which he normally kept open to vent out excess gas (and therefore prevent an explosion), and relieving the basket of most of its weight. He left his laboratory and his horizontal guillotine behind, and as the balloon rose closer to 262 feet he tossed most of his clothes, including his boots, on the ground. He kept only his camera obscura, whose glass positive he developed in a nearby inn after making his exposure.

Emerging from the inn, he trumpeted his historic success: “It is only a simple positive on glass, very feeble in this so hazy atmosphere, all stained after so many adventures, but what does it matter! It is impossible to deny it: here beneath me are the only three houses of the small town: the farmhouse, the inn, and the police station … One can distinguish perfectly on the road a tapestry maker whose cart stopped before the balloon, and on the tiles of the roofs the two white doves that had just landed there.”

In the glow of his triumph, Nadar suddenly realized what had been thwarting him for so long: The gas valve. During his previous ascents, the valve was spewing out excess hydrogen sulfide onto his developing baths, which, mixed with silver iodide, was ruining his negatives. In future ascents, he used a gas-proof cotton cover over the balloon basket, and was able to make wet-collodion-on-glass negatives. Nadar’s earliest surviving aerial photographs were taken in 1868.

Nadar’s ambitions didn’t end with aerial photography. In 1863, he launched Le Géant, which, at 196 feet tall, was the world’s largest gas balloon, complete with a two-story gondola, two cabins, a printing room, a photographic office, a lavatory, and a storeroom. In 1870, when Prussian forces attacked the city, he developed a mail system powered by pigeons. They carried miniature negatives into the city, each image capturing thousands of letters.

“I would only say that it's difficult for me to imagine any form of genius being untouched by a kind of madness,” Cadava, the translator, said via email. “It was perhaps his mad enthusiasm that kept him searching for new discoveries, even if, in most instances, they were developed in relation to very practical needs.”

By the time Nadar sat down to write his memoirs 35 years later, at the age of 80, aerial photography was “an everyday, elementary task, at the level of the lowest assistant in the laboratory.” Today, it is certainly even easier, with the development of digital and drone technology. But as Nadar reminds us in his memoir, it’s worth noting that his great achievement—like many great achievements—was once considered unlikely.

“It is always necessary to repeat Biot’s saying: ‘Nothing is easier than what was done yesterday, nothing more impossible than what will be done tomorrow,’” he wrote.