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When I was A Photographer

When I was A Photographer

by Félix Nadar; Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou, Translators
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
336 pp. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-02943-2.

Reviewed by Ana Peraica, PhD
Independent scholar

When I Was a Photographer is a long awaited integral translation of rarely seen and often referred collection of memoirs by a historic photographer/inventor Félix Nadar (1820–1910). Originally entitled Quand j'etais photographe and published with Ernest Flammarion around 1900, the collection was seen only in pieces, but hardly in a form the author has left it.

The first reference to the integral collection appeared in Rosalind Krauss' article Tracing Nadar (October, Vol.5-Photography, Summer, 1978: 29-47). This translation and reprint edition by The MIT Press, is introduced by another major photography theorists of today, Eduardo Cadava, whose essay Nadar's Photographopolis. taking Quand j'etais... as a central piece for analysis, was previously published in Grey Room (Summer 2012/48: 56-77), as well as in Cadava's book Paper Graveyards (2012).

In the first essay of the collection, Balsac and Daguerrotype, Nadar develops ideas of emmanation of the image, layers of images. The chapter, Homicidal Photography, is actually a short-story on a cadaver found in Seine. Nadar claims, quite radically, that the case of a murder can be solved by observing a cadaver, but he takes as the real corpse the photograph taken by police, not the actual body, thus developing the theory of deathness of the medium, commoly attributed to latter authors; Sontag and Barthes. In continuation with the aesthetics of death is also the text related to Nadar's photographic project of Parisian sewers, in which by the XIX century there were nearly "eleven million Parisians" (Cadava: xxxvi). Aside Parisian underground city, Nadar was also interested into its abstract upper image, developing the areal photography himself.

Nadar's essays are, which was already noticed by Cadava and Krauss, of completely different literary form and quality. Profiled as a writer of novels, Nadar (who published 11 books of short stories and essays), in many cases flirts with a genre of novel, especially in Female and Male Clients and The Professional Secret narrating professional anegdotes. At other cases, the novel becomes partially autobiographic, as in the case of the letter in the second chapter in the book. The only historical account is in The Primitives of Photography; it was already noted by Krauss. His style, as already Krauss noted, is "like an analytic patient, fixing on details and elaborating them. in order to recover a past that will be resonant with its own meaning" (Krauss, 1978)

This integral translation of Nadar would be a valuable source to anyone researching inventions, specifically photography in the XIX century, as well as pre-Modern photography, but also trying to understand the photographic theory of XX century itself.

Last Updated 1 May 2016

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