The Sin of Height
An Excerpt from Levels of Lifeby Julian Barnes
You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.
Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards, member of the Council of the Aeronautical Society, took off from the Dover Gasworks on March 23, 1882, and landed halfway between Dieppe and Neufchâtel.
Sarah Bernhardt had taken off from the center of Paris four years previously, and landed near Emerainville in the département of Seine-et-Marne.
Félix Tournachon had taken off from the Champ de Mars in Paris on October 18, 1863; after being driven east by a gale for seventeen hours, he crash-landed close to a railway line near Hanover.
Fred Burnaby traveled alone, in a red-and-yellow balloon called the Eclipse. Its basket was five feet long, three feet wide, and three feet high. Burnaby weighed seventeen stone, wore a striped coat and a close skullcap, and to protect his neck from the sun made a puggaree of his handkerchief. He took with him two beef sandwiches, a bottle of Apollinaris mineral water, a barometer to measure altitude, a thermometer, a compass, and a supply of cigars.
Sarah Bernhardt traveled with her artist-lover Georges Clairin and a professional aeronaut in an orange balloon called Doña Sol, after her current role at the Comédie-Française. At six-thirty in the evening, an hour into their flight, the actress played mother, preparing tartines de foie gras. The aeronaut opened a bottle of champagne, firing the cork into the sky; Bernhardt drank from a silver goblet. Then they ate oranges and tossed the empty bottle into the Lake of Vincennes. In their sudden superiority, they cheerfully dropped ballast onto the groundlings below: a family of English tourists on the balcony of the Bastille Column; later, a wedding party enjoying a rural picnic.
Tournachon traveled with eight companions in an aerostat of his own boastful imagining: “I shall make a balloon—the Ultimate Balloon—of extraordinarily gigantic proportions, twenty times bigger than the biggest.” He called it the Giant. It made five flights between 1863 and 1867. Passengers on this second flight included Tournachon’s wife, Ernestine, the aeronaut brothers Louis and Jules Godard, and a descendant of the primal ballooning family of Montgolfier. It is not reported what food they took with them.
These were the balloon-going classes of the day: the enthusiastic English amateur, happy to be mocked as a “balloonatic” and prepared to climb into anything about to become airborne; the most famous actress of her era, making a celebrity flight; and the professional balloonist who launched the Giant as a commercial venture. Two hundred thousand spectators watched its first ascent, for which thirteen passengers each paid one thousand francs; the aerostat’s cradle, which resembled a two-story wicker cottage, contained a refreshment room, beds, a lavatory, a photographic department, and even a printing room to produce instant commemorative brochures.
The Godard brothers were everywhere. They designed and built the Giant, and after its first two flights brought it to London for exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Shortly afterward a third brother, Eugène Godard, brought over an even bigger fire balloon, which made two ascents from Cremorne Gardens. Its cubic capacity was twice that of the Giant, while its straw-fed furnace, together with chimney, weighed 980 pounds. On its first London flight, Eugène agreed to take one English passenger with him, at a charge of five pounds. That man was Fred Burnaby.
These balloonists happily conformed to national stereotype. Becalmed above the English Channel, Burnaby, “careless of the escaping gases,” lights a cigar to help him think. When two French fishing boats signal for him to descend and be picked up from the water, he responds “by dropping a copy of the Times for their edification”—hinting, presumably, that a practical English officer can manage perfectly well by himself, thank you, Mossoo. Sarah Bernhardt confesses that she is temperamentally drawn to ballooning because “my dreamy nature would constantly transport me to the higher regions.” On her short flight she is provided with the convenience of a plain, straw-seated chair. When publishing her account of the adventure, Bernhardt whimsically opts to tell it from the chair’s point of view.
The aeronaut would descend from the heavens, look for a flat landing place, pull on the valve line, throw out the grapnel, and often bounce forty or fifty feet back into the air before the flukes of the anchor took hold. Then the local population would come running. When Fred Burnaby landed near the Château de Montigny, an inquisitive rustic poked his head into the half-deflated gasbag and nearly suffocated. The locals willingly helped collapse and fold the balloon; and Burnaby found these poor French laborers much kinder and more courteous than their English equivalents. He disbursed a half sovereign in their direction, pedantically specifying the exchange rate at the time he had left Dover. A hospitable farmer, M. Barthélemy Delanray, offered to put the aeronaut up for the night. First, though, came Mme Delanray’s dinner: omelette aux oignons, sautéed pigeon with chestnuts, vegetables, Neufchâtel cheese, cider, a bottle of Bordeaux, and coffee. Afterward, the village doctor arrived, and the butcher with a bottle of champagne. Burnaby lit a fireside cigar and reflected that “a balloon descent in Normandy was certainly preferable to one in Essex.”
Near Emerainville, the peasants who chased after the descending balloon marveled to see that it contained a woman. Bernhardt was used to making entrances: did she ever make a grander one than this? She was, of course, recognized. The rustics duly entertained her with a drama of their own: the tale of a grisly murder recently committed just there, exactly where she sat (on her listening and narrating chair). Soon, it came on to rain; the actress, famous for her slimness, joked that she was too thin to get wet—she would simply slip between the drops. Then, after the ritual distribution of tips, the balloon and its crew were escorted to Emerainville station in time for the last train back to Paris.
They knew it was dangerous. Fred Burnaby nearly collided with the gasworks chimney shortly after takeoff. The Doña Sol nearly came down in a wood shortly before landing. When the Giant crashed close to the railway line, the experienced Godards prudently jumped out before the final impact; Tournachon broke a leg, and his wife suffered injuries to her neck and chest. A gas balloon might explode; a fire balloon, unsurprisingly, could catch fire. Every takeoff and landing was hazardous. Nor did larger mean safer: it meant—as the case of the Giant proved—more at the mercy of the wind. Early cross-Channel aeronauts often wore cork buoyancy jackets in case they landed on water. And there were no parachutes. In August 1786—ballooning’s infancy—a young man had dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet. He was one of those who held the balloon’s restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upward. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: “The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.”
Aeronauts were the new Argonauts, their adventures instantly chronicled. A balloon flight linked town and country, England and France, France and Germany. Landing provoked pure excitement: a balloon brought no evil. By the Normandy fireside of M. Barthélemy Delanray, the village doctor proposed a toast to universal brotherhood. Burnaby and his new friends clinked glasses. At which point, being British, he explained to them the superiority of a monarchy over a republic. But then, the president of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain was His Grace the Duke of Argyll, and its three vice presidents were His Grace the Duke of Sutherland, the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Dufferin, and the Rt. Hon. Lord Richard Grosvenor MP. The equivalent French body, the Société des Aéronautes, founded by Tournachon, was more democratic and intellectual. Its aristocrats were writers and artists: George Sand, Dumas père et fils, Offenbach.
Ballooning represented freedom—yet a freedom subservient to the powers of wind and weather. Aeronauts often couldn’t tell if they were moving or stationary, gaining height or losing it. In the early days, they would throw out a handful of feathers, which would fly upward if they were descending, and down if ascending. By Burnaby’s time this technology had advanced to torn-up strips of newspaper. As for measuring horizontal progress, Burnaby invented his own speedometer, consisting of a small paper parachute attached to fifty yards of silk line. He would toss the parachute overboard and time how long it took for the line to run out. Seven seconds translated into a balloon speed of twelve miles per hour.
There were multiple attempts, over that first century of flight, to master this uncontrollable bag with its dangling basket. Rudders and oars were tried, pedals and wheels turning screw-fans; they all made slight difference. Burnaby believed that shape was the key: an aerostat in the form of a tube or cigar, and propelled by machinery, was the way forward—as it eventually proved. But all, whether English or French, conservative or progressive, agreed that the future of flight lay in the heavier-than-air machine. And though his name was always linked to ballooning, Tournachon also founded the Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier-than-Air Machines; its first secretary was Jules Verne. Another enthusiast, Victor Hugo, said that a balloon was like a beautiful, drifting cloud—whereas what humanity needed was the equivalent of that gravity-defying miracle, the bird. Flight, in France, was generally a matter for social progressives. Tournachon wrote that the three supreme emblems of modernity were “photography, electricity, and aeronautics.”
In the beginning, birds flew, and God made the birds. Angels flew, and God made the angels. Men and women had long legs and empty backs, and God had made them like that for a reason. To mess with flight was to mess with God. It was to prove a long struggle, full of instructive legends.
For instance, the case of Simon Magus. The National Gallery in London owns an altarpiece by Benozzo Gozzoli; its predella has been broken up and dispersed over the centuries. One section illustrates the story of St. Peter, Simon Magus, and Emperor Nero. Simon was a magician who had won Nero’s favor, and sought to keep it by proving that his powers were greater than those of the apostles Peter and Paul. This tiny painting tells the story in three parts. In the background is a wooden tower, from which Simon Magus is demonstrating his latest trick: human flight. Vertical takeoff and lift have been achieved, and the Roman aeronaut is seen heading skyward, with only the bottom half of his green mantle showing; the rest is cut off by the picture’s top edge. Simon’s secret rocket fuel is, however, illegitimate: he relies—physically as well as spiritually—on the support of demons. In the midground, St. Peter is shown praying to God, asking him to dispossess the demons of their power. The theological and aeronautical results of this intervention are confirmed in the foreground: a dead magician, blood oozing from his mouth after an enforced crash-landing. The sin of height is punished.
Icarus messed with the Sun God: that was a bad idea too.
The first ever ascent in a hydrogen balloon was made by the physicist Dr. J. A. C. Charles on December 1, 1783. “When I felt myself escaping from the earth,” he commented, “my reaction was not pleasure but happiness.” It was “a moral feeling,” he added. “I could hear myself living, so to speak.” Most aeronauts felt something like that, even Fred Burnaby, who made a point of not rising easily to rapture. High above the English Channel, he observes the steam from the Dover and Calais packet boat, reflects on the latest foolish and abominable plan to build a Channel tunnel, then is moved, briefly, to moral feeling:
The air was light and charming to breathe, free as it was from the impurities that burden the atmosphere near the globe. My spirits rose. It was pleasant to be for the time in a region free from letters, with no post office near, no worries, and above all no telegraphs.
Aboard the Doña Sol, “the Divine Sarah” is in heaven. She finds that up above the clouds there is “not silence, but the shadow of silence.” She feels the balloon to be “the emblem of uttermost freedom”—which is also how most groundlings would have viewed the actress herself. Félix Tournachon describes “the silent immensities of welcoming and beneficent space, where man cannot be reached by any human force or by any power of evil, and where he feels himself live as if for the first time.” In this silent, moral space, the aeronaut experiences health of body and health of soul. Altitude “reduces all things to their relative proportions, and to the Truth.” Cares, remorse, disgust become strangers: “How easily indifference, contempt, forgetfulness drop away . . . and forgiveness descends.”
The aeronaut could visit God’s space—without the use of magic—and colonize it. And in doing so, he discovered a peace that didn’t pass understanding. Height was moral, height was spiritual. Height, some thought, was even political: Victor Hugo believed, quite simply, that heavier-than-air flight would lead to democracy. When the Giant crashed near Hanover, Hugo offered to raise a public subscription. Tournachon refused out of pride, so instead the poet composed an open letter in praise of aeronautics. He described walking in the Avenue de l’Observatoire in Paris with the astronomer François Arago when a balloon launched from the Champ de Mars passed over their heads. Hugo had said to his companion: “There floats the egg waiting for the bird. But the bird is within and will emerge.” Arago took Hugo’s hands and replied ardently, “And on that day Geo will be called Demos!” Hugo endorsed this “profound remark” by saying, “ ‘Geo will become Demos.’ The whole world will be a democracy. . . . Man will become bird—and what a bird! A thinking bird. An eagle with a soul!”
This sounds high-flown, overinflated. And aeronautics did not lead to democracy, unless budget airlines count. But aeronautics purged the sin of height, otherwise known as the sin of getting above yourself. Who now had the right to look down on the world from above and command its description? It is time to bring Félix Tournachon into better focus.
He was born in 1820 and died in 1910. He was a tall, gangling figure with a mane of red hair, passionate and restless by nature. Baudelaire called him “an astonishing expression of vitality”; his gusts of energy and flames of hair seemed enough to lift a balloon into the air by themselves. No one ever accused him of being sensible. The poet Gérard de Nerval introduced him to the magazine editor Alphonse Karr with the words, “He is very witty and very stupid.” A later editor and close friend, Charles Philipon, called him “a man of wit without a shadow of rationality. . . . His life has been, still is, and always will be incoherent.” He was the sort of bohemian who lived with his widowed mother until he married; and the sort of husband whose infidelities coexisted with uxoriousness.
He was a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur, and inventor, a keen registrar of patents and founder of companies; a tireless self-publicist, and in old age a prolific writer of unreliable memoirs. As a progressive, he hated Napoléon III and sulked in his carriage when the emperor arrived to watch the departure of the Giant. As a photographer, he declined the custom of high society, preferring to memorialize the circles in which he moved; naturally, he photographed Sarah Bernhardt several times. He was an active member of the first French society for the protection of animals. He used to make rude noises at policemen and disapproved of prison (where he had once been confined for debt): he thought juries should ask not “Is he guilty?” but rather “Is he dangerous?” He threw huge parties and kept open table; he gave over his studio on the boulevard des Capucines to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. He planned to invent a new sort of gunpowder. He also dreamed of a kind of talking picture, which he called “an acoustic daguerreotype.” He was hopeless with money.
He was not known by the sturdy Lyonnais name of Tournachon. In the bohemia of his youth, friends were often affectionately rebaptized—for instance, by adding or substituting the suffix -dar. So he became first Tournadar, and then simply Nadar. It was as Nadar that he wrote and caricatured and photographed; as Nadar that he became, in the years between 1855 and 1870, the finest portrait photographer yet seen. And this was his name when, in the autumn of 1858, he put together two things that had not been put together before.
Photography, like jazz, was a sudden, contemporary art which achieved technical excellence very quickly. And once it became able to leave the confines of the studio, it tended to spread horizontally, out and across. In 1851 the French government set up the Heliographic Mission, which dispatched five photographers across the land to record the buildings (and ruins) that made up the national patrimony. Two years earlier, it had been a Frenchman who first photographed the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Nadar was less interested in the horizontal than the vertical, in height and depth. His portraits surpass those of his contemporaries because they go deeper. He said that the theory of photography could be learned in an hour, and its techniques in a day; but what couldn’t be taught were a sense of light, a grasp of the moral intelligence of the sitter, and “the psychological side of photography—the word doesn’t seem too ambitious to me.” He relaxed his subjects with chatter, while modeling them with lamps, screens, veils, mirrors, and reflectors. The poet Théodore de Banville called him “a novelist and caricaturist hunting his prey.” It was the novelist who took these psychological portraits, and who concluded that the vainest sitters were actors, closely followed by soldiers. The same novelist also spotted one key difference between the sexes: when a couple who had been jointly photographed returned to examine their proofs, the wife always looked first at the portrait of her husband—and so did the husband. Such was humanity’s self-love, Nadar concluded, that most were inevitably disappointed when they finally saw a true image of themselves.
Moral and psychological depth; also physical depth. Nadar was the first to photograph the Paris sewers, where he made twenty-three images. He also descended into the Catacombs, those sewer-like ossuaries where bones were stacked after the cemetery clearances of the 1780s. Here, he needed an eighteen-minute exposure. This was no problem for the dead, of course; but to ape the living, Nadar draped and dressed mannequins, and gave them parts to play—watchman, bone stacker, laborer pulling a wagon full of skulls and femurs.
And this left height. The things Nadar put together that had not been put together before were two of his three emblems of modernity: photography and aeronautics.
First, a darkroom had to be built in the balloon’s cradle, with doubled curtains of black and orange; inside was the merest flicker of a lamp. The new wet-plate technique consisted of coating a glass sheet with collodion, then sensitizing it in a solution of silver nitrate. But it was a cumbersome process which required deft handling, so Nadar was accompanied by a plate preparer. The camera was a Dallmeyer, with a special horizontal shutter Nadar had patented. Near Petit-Bicêtre, in the north of Paris, on a day of little wind in the autumn of 1858, the two men made their ascent in a tethered balloon and took the world’s first sky-based photograph. Back down at the local auberge which served as their headquarters, they excitedly developed the plate.
And found nothing. Or rather, nothing but a muddy soot-black expanse with no trace of an image. They tried again, and failed; tried a third time, and failed again. Suspecting that the baths might contain impurities, they filtered and refiltered them, to no effect. They changed all the chemicals, but still it made no difference. Time was passing, winter was approaching, and the great experiment had not worked. Then, as Nadar relates in his memoirs, he was sitting one day beneath an apple tree (a Newtonian coincidence which perhaps stretches credulity), when suddenly he understood the problem. “The persistent failure derived from the fact that the neck of the balloon, always left open during ascents, allowed hydrosulphuric gas to stream out into my silver baths.” So the next time, once sufficient height had been reached, he closed off the gas valve—a dangerous procedure in itself, which might cause the aerostat to explode. The prepared plate was exposed, and back at the auberge Nadar was rewarded with an image, faint but discernible, of the three buildings beneath the tethered balloon: farm, auberge, and gendarmerie. Two white pigeons could be seen on the farm roof; in the lane was a stopped cart, its occupant wondering at the contraption floating in the sky.
This first picture did not survive, except in Nadar’s memory and our subsequent imagination; nor did any others he took in the next ten years. The only extant images of his aerostatic experiments date from 1868. One shows an eight-part, multilens view of streets leading to the Arc de Triomphe; another looks across the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now Avenue Foch) toward Les Ternes and Montmartre.
On October 23, 1858, Nadar duly took out patent no. 38,509 for “a new system of aerostatic photography.” But the process proved technically difficult and commercially unprofitable. The lack of public response was also discouraging. He himself imagined two practical applications for his “new system.” First, it would transform land surveying: from a balloon you could map a million square meters, or a hundred hectares, in one go; and make ten such observations in the course of a day. Its second use would be in military reconnaissance: a balloon could act as a “traveling church steeple.” This in itself was not new: the Revolutionary Army had used one at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, while the expeditionary force Napoléon took to Egypt included a Corps d’Aérostation equipped with four balloons (destroyed by Nelson at Aboukir Bay). The addition of photography, however, would clearly give any half-competent general the edge. Yet who should first seek to exploit this possibility? Only the hated Napoléon III, who in 1859 offered Nadar 50,000 francs for his services in the coming war with Austria. The photographer declined. As for the peacetime use of his patent, Nadar was assured by his “very eminent friend Colonel Laudesset” that (for reasons unstated) aerial land surveying was “impossible.” Frustrated, and ever restless, he moved on, leaving the field of aerostatic photography to the Tissandier brothers, to Jacques Ducom, and to his own son, Paul Nadar.
He moved on. During the Prussian siege of Paris, he set up the Compagnie d’Aérostatiers Militaires to provide a communications link to the outside world. Nadar dispatched “siege balloons”—one of them named the Victor Hugo, another the George Sand—from the Place St.-Pierre in Montmartre, bearing letters, reports to the French government, and intrepid aeronauts. The first flight left on September 23, 1870, and landed safely in Normandy; its postbag contained a letter from Nadar to the Times of London, which printed it, in full and in French, five days later. This postal service continued throughout the siege, though some balloons were shot down by the Prussians, and all depended on the wind. One ended up in a Norwegian fjord.
The photographer was always famous: Victor Hugo once addressed an envelope with the single word Nadar, and still the letter got to him. In 1862 Nadar’s friend Daumier caricatured him in a lithograph called Nadar Raising Photography to the Level of Art. It depicts him crouched over his camera in the basket of a balloon high above Paris, whose every house is plastered with advertisements for photography. And if Art was often wary or fearful of Photography, that hustling, arriviste medium, it paid regular, easeful homage to aeronautics. Guardi showed a balloon hovering calmly over Venice; Manet portrayed the Giant making its last ascent (with Nadar on board) from Les Invalides. Painters from Goya to the Douanier Rousseau made balloons float serenely in a serener sky: the celestial version of pastoral.
But the artist who made the most compelling single image of ballooning was Odilon Redon, and he disagreed. Redon had witnessed the Giant in flight, and also Henri Giffard’s “Great Captive Balloon,” which starred at the Paris Exhibitions of 1867 and 1878. In the latter year Redon produced a charcoal drawing called Eye Balloon. At first sight it seems just a witty visual pun: the sphere of the balloon and the sphere of the eye are conflated into one, as a vast orb hovers over a gray landscape. The eye balloon has its eyelid open, so that the eyelash makes a fringe round the top of the canopy. Dangling from the balloon is a cradle in which squats a rough hemispherical shape: the top half of a human head. But the tone of the image is new and sinister. We could not be farther from ballooning’s established tropes: freedom, spiritual exaltation, human progress. Redon’s eternally open eye is deeply unsettling. The eye in the sky; God’s security camera. And that lumpish human head invites us to conclude that the colonization of space doesn’t purify the colonizers; all that has happened is that we have brought our sinfulness to a new location.
Aeronautics and photography were scientific advances with practical civic consequences. And yet, in their early years, an aura of mystery and magic surrounded each of them. Those bug-eyed yokels running after the trailing anchor of a balloon might have expected Simon Magus to descend from it just as much as Sarah the Divine. And photography seemed to threaten more than just a sitter’s amour propre. It wasn’t only forest dwellers who feared that the camera might steal their soul. Nadar recalled that Balzac had a theory of the self, according to which a person’s essence was made up of a near-infinite series of spectral layers, one superimposed on the next. The novelist further believed that during the “Daguerrean operation” one such layer was stripped away and retained by the magic instrument. Nadar couldn’t remember if this layer was supposedly lost forever, or whether regeneration was possible, though he cheekily suggested that, given Balzac’s corpulence, he had less to fear than most from having a few spectral layers removed. But this theory—or apprehension—wasn’t unique to Balzac. It was shared by his writer friends Gautier and Nerval, making up what Nadar termed a “cabbalistic trio.”
Félix Tournachon was an uxorious man. He had married Ernestine in September 1854. It was a sudden wedding which surprised his friends: the bride was an eighteen-year-old from the Protestant bourgeoisie of Normandy. True, she had a dowry; and marriage was a useful way for Félix to escape Life with Mother. But for all his divagations, the relationship appears to have been as tender as it was long. Tournachon quarreled with his only brother and his only son; both were written—or wrote themselves—out of his life. Ernestine was always there. If there was a pattern to his life, she provided it. She was with him at the crash of the Giant near Hanover. Her money helped pay for his studio; later, the business was put in her name.
In 1887, hearing of a fire at the Opéra Comique, and believing her son Paul to be there, Ernestine suffered a stroke. Félix immediately moved the household out of Paris to the Forest of Sénart, where he owned a property called L’Hermitage. They stayed there for the next eight years. In 1893 Edmond de Goncourt described the ménage in his Journal:
At its center is Mme Nadar, aphasiac, looking like an old white-haired professor. She is lying down, wrapped in a sky-blue dressing gown lined with pink silk. Next to her, Nadar takes the part of the tender nurse, tucking her brightly colored gown around her, easing the hair off her temples, touching and stroking her all the time.
Her dressing gown is bleu de ciel, the color of the sky in which they no longer flew. Both were grounded now. In 1909, after fifty-five years of marriage, Ernestine died. That same year, Louis Blériot flew the Channel, a final endorsement of Nadar’s belief in heavier-than-air flight; the balloonist sent the aviator a telegram of congratulations. While Blériot went up into the air, Ernestine went down into the ground. While Blériot flew, Nadar had lost his rudder. He did not survive Ernestine long; he died in March 1910, surrounded by his dogs and cats.
By now, few remembered his achievement at Petit-Bicêtre in the autumn of 1858. And the aerostatic photographs that exist are of only passable quality: we must imagine the excitement back into them. But they represent a moment when the world grew up. Or perhaps that is too melodramatic, and too hopeful. Perhaps the world progresses, not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery. Still, this was an instant of cognitive change. The vestigial human outline on a cave wall, the first mirror, the development of portraiture, the science of photography—these were advances that allowed us to look at ourselves better, with increasing truth. And even if the world was largely unaware at the time of the events at Petit-Bicêtre, the change could not be unchanged, unmade. And the sin of height was purged.
Once, the peasant had looked up at the heavens, where God lived, fearing thunder, hail, and God’s anger, hoping for sun, a rainbow, and God’s approval. Now, the modern peasant looked up at the heavens and saw instead the less daunting arrival of Colonel Fred Burnaby, cigar in one pocket and half sovereign in the other, of Sarah Bernhardt and her autobiographical chair, of Félix Tournachon in his airborne wicker cottage, complete with refreshment room, lavatory, and photographic department.
Nadar’s only surviving aerostatic photographs date from 1868. Exactly a century later, in December 1968, the Apollo 8 mission lifted off for its journey to the moon. On Christmas Eve the spacecraft passed behind the far side of the moon and entered lunar orbit. As it emerged, the astronauts were the first humans to see a phenomenon for which a new word was needed: “Earthrise.” The pilot of the lunar module, William Anders, using a specially adapted Hasselblad camera, photographed a two-thirds-full Earth soaring in a night sky. His pictures show it in luscious color, with feathery cloud cover, swirling storm systems, rich blue seas, and rusty continents. Major General Anders later reflected:
I think it was the Earthrise that really kind of got everybody in the solar plexus. . . . We were looking back at our planet, the place where we evolved. Our Earth was quite colorful, pretty and delicate compared to the very rough, rugged, beat-up, even boring lunar surface. I think it struck everybody that here we’d come 240,000 miles to see the Moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.
At the time, Anders’s photos were as disturbing as they were beautiful; and they remain so today. To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock. But it was the flame-haired Félix Tournachon—if only from a height of a few hundred meters, if only in black and white, if only in a few local views of Paris—who first put two things together.