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.

5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

David Nadlinger
This Photo of a Single Atom Won a Science Photography Top Prize
David Nadlinger
David Nadlinger

While you've been busy finding just the right Instagram filter for your cat, a University of Oxford graduate student has been occupied with visualizing a single atom and capturing it in a still frame. And the remarkable feat recently earned an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council photography award. Why? It was taken with a conventional camera, and the atom can be seen with the naked eye.

Take a look:

A close-up of a single atom in an ion trap
David Nadlinger

That tiny dot in between the two parallel metal electrodes is a strontium atom suspended by electric fields in an ion trap. It’s visible because the photographer, Ph.D. candidate David Nadlinger, projected blue violet light into a vacuum chamber. The atom absorbed and reflected the light, allowing Nadlinger to snap a photo in the split instant the atom was viewable. The space between the two points is just 0.08 of an inch.

Nadlinger dubbed the image "Single Atom in an Ion Trap" and took the Council’s top award. In a statement, he expressed enthusiasm that other people are now able to see what his work in quantum computing looks like.

[h/t Newsweek]


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