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

How an Eccentric French Balloonist Invented Aerial Photography

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.

Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.


Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.


When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.


Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.


In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.


The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.


When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.


A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”


At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”


Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.


War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”


Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)


Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”


Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”


Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Adobe Photoshop Is Coming to the iPad
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Photoshop has gone through endless iterations since its debut in 1990. The popular photo-editing software was nearly called Barneyscan XP because it was sold with Barneyscan-branded scanners. Creators John and Thomas Knoll sold the product to Adobe Systems, who have been distributing it for nearly 30 years. That first release was a Macintosh-only product, but its next release is also a bit of a milestone for Apple. Adobe is planning on a full-featured Photoshop app that will run on iPads, as 9to5Mac reports.

This is big news for image editing professionals and enthusiasts, as previously only portions of the program were available via Apple’s app store. For Apple, the move is part of a push for their iOS11 operating platform to mimic desktop functionality. For Adobe, having a full-featured Photoshop on the tablet is expected to satisfy hobbyists and more casual users of the software while still meeting the needs of professionals who need to perform tasks away from their work stations.

Windows users can currently run Photoshop on select tablets like the Microsoft Surface. The iPad version is expected to hit sometime in 2019 and will likely be part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription, which costs $9.99 a month.

[h/t 9to5Mac]


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