Felix Nadar

Seeing in the Round

I liked seeing this set of twelve self-portraits by the French photographer Felix Nadar, at the Degas exhibition at the RA. Nadar was a man of many parts – he’d been a cartoonist, a novelist and a champion of hot air balloons before he took up photography.

In 1865, he photographed himself in a set of 12 pictures, from all around. He then projected the dozen still pictures in quick succession, to create an impression that the camera was tracking around him. He called it a ‘revolving self-portrait.’

Many artists at the time were experimenting with the techniques that were shortly to lead to moving pictures and cinema. But the rotating image of Nadal (you can see it in motion on his Wiki page) made me think not so much about film as about character, in writing.

One of the bits of advice that has lodged in my head, from the many books I’ve read on how to write fiction, is to allow your people to sometimes behave out of character. This chimes with my view of the world – that everyone has the capacity to behave in ways that – for good or bad – surprise.

I liked the way that Felix Nadar, in his own self-portraits, taken presumably within a short time of each other, looks like a number of different people – haughty, roguish, pensive. Older from the back with his bald pate showing than from the front with his hair in a luxuriant wave. And so on.

Characters appear different from different points of view.  A rounded picture will incorporate several views. How the person sees themselves differs from the way they are seen by others. Each of those others will see them differently and – over time – all the views will change too.

From a single day in Paris in 1865, Felix Nadar seems to leap out from his revolving self-portrait, ready to see what’s happening in art now and add his two centimes’ worth.



3 Responses to Seeing in the Round

  1. I am particularly struck by the bald pate. And there is an informality about all the poses that takes me by surprise. I realise that it subverts my expectations of photographs from that time.

    • You’re right about the informality. I suppose most of the portraits we see are of people very concerned to look their best. And Nadar was amusing himself and experimenting. I like the pate too!
      Thanks for commenting.

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