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French photographer, writer, and caricaturist

To the question—“Who do you think is the world’s greatest photographer?”—French essayist Roland Barthes provided a simple, one-word answer: “Nadar.” And in the history of French photography in the nine- teenth century, there are few who rival the artistry and output of this man who lived for eighty years of the nineteenth century and ten of the twentieth century.
Nadar’s notoriety in photography came after success- ful careers first in writing and publishing and then in caricature. Based in Paris, Nadar met and communed with a large circle of late-Romantic artists and writers, as well as the radical social thinkers of the time. This circle considered itself bohemian and in opposition to anything bourgeois; it was politically and socially liberal and believed in the importance of art, personal integrity, and freedom of self-expression.

Photographic Beginnings
In 1854, although working at the time on his lithographic pantheon of contemporary “poets, novelists, historians, publicists, and journalists,” Nadar offered to assist his younger brother Adrien in developing a new career. Na- dar not only paid for his brother’s lessons with Gustave le Gray, but he also managed to establish Adrien in his own portrait studio in Paris. It appears that it was always Nadar’s intention to join Adrien in taking up photog- raphy; later that year Nadar commenced photography lessons with the firm of Adolphe Bertsch and Camille d’Arnoud. By September of 1854, however, Adrien’s studio was failing to the point that Nadar felt compelled to step in and take control. Together the brothers made a small series of portraits, some of which were used to complete the portraits used in the Panthéon Nadar.
Nadar also arranged for the studio’s work to be exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1855.
By January of 1855 Adrien requested that the brothers separate, leaving Nadar to set up shop in his own resi- dence at 113, rue Saint-Lazure. Adrien also adopted the name “Nadar jeune.” Nadar had created his own name in 1838—a pen name (with a few variations) by which he was known his entire professional life. Beginning in 1855 (with appeals ending only in June 1859), a lawsuit was filed by Nadar to make Adrien cease and desist his use of the appellation “Nadar jeune.” During those years Adrien did have some success as a photographer, while Nadar also established himself as a portrait photogra- pher, becoming a member of the Société française de photographie in 1856 and winning a gold medal at the Exposition Photographie in Brussels in the same year.

Photographic Technique
In line with what he would have learned from Adolphe- Auguste Bertsch (who invented a faster and aesthetically finer collodion process for negative plates), Nadar’s first prints were made from wet-collodion negatives on high- quality salted paper. By 1855 Nadar produced signed, mounted, salted paper prints: they measured 11 × 81⁄4 inches. Although disparaging of Disdéri’s carte de visite format (Nadar considered it unaesthetic), by 1860 he had “submitted” to the raging fashion and was producing both full-size and carte prints (both salted paper and albumen, although the low-cost, commercially produced albumen papers would eventually prevail). From his earliest days as a photographer, it appears that Nadar manipulated his negatives in the darkroom; by the 1860s it is clear that he was retouching his negatives, making the retouching of prints rare. Nadar also experimented with artificial lighting not only for his portraits but also for his work photographing the Paris catacombs and sewers. He had always been a master at manipulating natural light to aesthetic effect in his studio and soon abandoned electric light for his portraits.

Portrait Photographer
Nadar’s turn to portrait photography appears to be a natural progression from his work in caricature. Already focused on capturing the essence of individuals’ physi- ognomy through drawing and then mass producing the caricatures through lithography, Nadar possessed the aesthetic and interpersonal skills to use the medium of photography to its best advantage. Not only did he study with a photographer producing the finest-quality prints in Paris in 1854, but he also had a ready-made clientele, as well as name recognition. His circle of acquaintances was very broad, and many up-and-com- ing and established artists, writers, and social activists had already sat for Nadar. One of two extant albums that Nadar used for guests to sign when sitting for their portraits comprises over 400 names (with accompanying commentaries or samples of drawing, music, or poetry) of the most famous individuals working in music, art, poetry, fiction, politics, and the military in a twenty-year period between the mid-1850s and the early 1870s.
In 1876 Ernest Lacan—editor-in-chief of France’s first photography magazine, La Lumière—evaluated Nadar’s eminence in portrait photography: “His prints, their formats large for that period, had an entirely new look about them. Nadar generally worked in broad sunshine or at least lit his sitter in such a way that one side of the face was very bright and the other very dark. The pictures generally resembled what are today called ‘portraits à la Rembrandt.’ They were very artistic and enjoyed a great success” (quoted in Françoise Heilburn, “Nadar and the Art of Portrait Photography,” Nadar, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995, 36). Many scholars consider a mere six-year period from 1855 to 1860 to be Nadar’s era of greatness in portrait photography. In 1860 Nadar undertook the construction of a new, large photographic studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines. Completed in 1861, it cost 230,000 francs, all of which Nadar borrowed. Financial considerations, therefore, and the popularity and economy of the carte de visite format forced Nadar to alter his original method of photographic portraiture. The results included small- er, less detailed prints as well as the miniaturization of his existing archive of prints (he re-shot original prints to create smaller negatives that would accommodate the carte format).
Typical of a Nadar photographic portrait is the lack of props or elaborate backgrounds. He also patented a technique in which the edges of the prints are faded. All attention centers on the subject, and most prints comprise only one individual. Nadar’s subjects are never harshly cast, but they are not idealized either. In general,
he de-emphasizes clothing, requesting that his subjects choose dark garments for their sitting. Nadar also de- emphasizes the subject’s hands—frequently eliminating them from the shot or hiding them inside clothes or the folds of cloth. There is no one pose that Nadar adopts for his sitters. Some look left, some right—with eyes looking forward or with eyes looking down; some sit or stand and look directly at the camera, although most are posed standing or sitting at an angle from the camera. But as one scholar comments: “As Nadar is forced into rapid, high-volume production in the early 1860s [. . .] a bland, stereotyped portrait emerges [. . .] which relies on conventional dress and body language, flat lighting, and traditional studio props” (Ulrich Keller, “Sorting Out Nadar,” Nadar, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995, 86).
Among those photographed by Nadar are: Mikhail Bakunin, Théodore de Banville, Charles Baudelaire, Hector Berlioz, Sarah Bernhardt, Jules Champfleury, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Eugène Delac- roix, Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas (père and fils), Théophile Gautier, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Constantin Guys, Victor Hugo, Edouard Manet, Jules Michelet, Jean Français Millet, Henri Mürger, Gérard de Nerval, Jacques Offenbach, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Gioacchino Rossini Rossini, George Sand, Giuseppe Verdi, and Alfred de Vigny.

Aerial Photography
In 1858 Nadar took his first aerial photographs from a balloon tethered near the Arc de Triomphe. He had actually attempted this endeavor the year before but was unsuccessful in making photographs, because the gases used in the balloon chemically interacted with his negatives. Nadar was a firm believer that the path to human flight lay with machines heavier than air, so he had his own balloon, called le Géant [Giant], built in 1863 in anticipation that the profits from its rides would generate enough income to build a helicopter. Between 1863 and 1867 he made five ascents in le Géant and remarkably increased his notoriety, but this adventure ultimately proved to be a financial disaster.

Subterranean Photography
In his quest for technological innovation and new pur- suits, Nadar negotiated the right to photograph under- ground in Paris—first the catacombs in 1861–62, then the sewers in 1864–65. Victor Hugo had made the sewers famous in Les Misérables, and the catacombs fascinated such compatriots as Gustave Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, all of whom toured the burial sites in 1862. Of course, the idea of going underground after having soared above ground seems only fitting. Although less than pleased with the results of using artificial light in his portrait sittings, Nadar understood that electric light was absolutely necessary for underground pho- tography; he represents the first photographer ever to attempt such a task. Using magnesium flares for light in the catacombs, Nadar needed to expose the negatives for upwards of 18 minutes. As a result, he decided to use mannequins rather than living humans to simulate workers (although at least one image exists in which Nadar himself appears). These staged images with their harsh lighting, nevertheless, represent a progressive experiment to push the boundaries of the medium and increase Nadar’s fame as well. His work in the sewers a few years later was more problematic technically and yielded approximately two dozen images. They failed to capture the full extent of recent renovations, nor did they depict the ancient sewers described by Hugo. His power source entailed long wires attached to batteries that remained above ground.

Nadar. Eugène Pelletan.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift and Rogers Fund, 1991 (1991.1198) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1873 Nadar purchased a home in the countryside outside of Paris where he and his wife Ernestine then spent most of their time. Political upheavals that in- cluded the fall of Napoléon III, the siege of Paris, and the subsequent Commune (itself overturned by the second siege of Paris) left Nadar physically, emotion- ally, and financially spent. He vacated his large studio on the boulevard des Capucines and relocated to small quarters in the rue d’Anjou. Interesting to note, how- ever, is that Nadar allowed the Impressionist artists to mount their first exhibition in his old establishment on the boulevard for which he still held the lease. His son Paul now managed the business, although it was not until 1895 that Nadar formally turned over all rights to the name and all remaining partnership in the business. In his retirement Nadar began yet another career as a memoirist, which included the 1900 publication, Quand j’étais un photographe [When I Was a Photographer]. Nadar’s final work as a photographer occurred in 1897 after his son failed to pay him his annuity: he opened a portrait studio in Marseilles but sold it in 1899. In 1900 Nadar was honored with a retrospective exposition of his work at the Exposition Universelle. The last decade of his life found him in failing health, although he survived both his younger brother Adrien and his wife Ernestine. Upon Paul Nadar’s death in 1939, the Nadar studio ceased to exist.

Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon on 6 April 1820 in Paris, Nadar was the first child of printer/publisher Victor Tournachon and Thérèse Maillet. Originally educated in and around Paris, Nadar began but never completed the study of medicine in Lyons, where his father had relocated the family. In 1838 Nadar returned to Paris on his own and adopted “Nadar” (sometimes “Nadard”) as his pen name. In Paris in the 1840s, Nadar allied himself with a band of vagabond artists that Henri Mürger immortalized in Scènes de la vie Bohème [Scenes from the Life of Bohemia]; among them was Charles Baudelaire. Nadar’s first career was as a writer, but by 1846 he had embarked on a second career as a caricaturist, culminating in his 1854 tour de force, Panthéon Nadar (a revised version appeared in 1858), a set of two enormous lithographs compris- ing caricatures of noted Parisians. In 1854 Nadar also married Ernestine-Constance Lefèvre and assisted his brother Adrien by financing photography lessons for him with Gustave Le Gray and setting up a photographic studio, first for Adrien and then for himself. Though he continued to do caricatures throughout the 1850s, by the 1860s Nadar was an established portrait photographer in Paris, becoming a member of the Société française de photographie in 1856, exhibiting in its Salon in 1859, and pioneering a number of photographic techniques and locations, such as the first aerial photography and artificial lighting in 1858, equestrian photography in 1861, and photographing the catacombs and sewers of Paris in 1861–62 and 1864–65, respectively. In addition to these careers Nadar was also an aeronaut and financed a hot-air balloon called le Géant [Giant]. Nadar retired from photography in 1873, leaving his studio to his son Paul (1856–1939) to run. During his retirement Nadar continued to write and publish memoirs; he briefly re- emerged as a photographer in 1897 in Marseilles. Nadar died in Paris on 20 March 1910, fourteen months after the death of his wife.

NADAR, PAUL (1856–1939)
French photographer, entrepreneur, and son of Nadar

Paul Nadar was born February 8, 1856, in Paris, the only son of Ernestine and Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar. Considered one of the premier portraitists of his time, Félix Nadar was celebrated for his Panthéon Nadar, caricatures of mid-to late 19th century Parisian cultural players, and his informal photographic portraits of these artists, writers, and performers.
Nadar’s collodion-on-glass portraits were renown for their intimacy and details. As opposed to the work of contemporaries such as Disdéri, Nadar used minimal props. In lieu of elaborate backdrops and costumes, his subjects were shown in everyday clothing, either in fron- tal or three-quarter angle views. Mirrors, combined with natural and artificial lights, created dramatic shadows and framed his subjects in light, an effect intended to mirror their personal aura. Amongst the most intimate of Nadar’s works were his photographs of Paul. In a celebrated work of 1856, the infant Paul is shown be- ing fed by his wet nurse. Two years later, Paul is shown resting against the body of Madame Lefranc in a work that recalls late Italian Renaissance and Baroque images of the Madonna and Child.
By 1862, Nadar lost interest in studio photography, yet was forced to accept commissions from politicians and prosperous bourgeoisie. As a result, his celebrated aesthetic was often compromised as he, like most studio photographers, focused on lucrative carte-de-visites. Nadar increasingly relied on studio assistants, who sometimes worked without him, to create his photo- graphs. Despite the commissions, Nadar closed his studio on the fashionable boulevard des Capucines in 1871. That same year, he established a smaller practice at 51 rue d’Anjou. Run by his wife, Ernestine, this studio catered to a more affluent clientele and prospered. Paul, who had been trained by his father, acted as the artis- tic director, while Nadar pursued other interests. Paul became manager in 1874 and led the Nadar Studio in a different direction. While Nadar photographed wealthy clients in order to fund other projects, Paul actively sought such commissions, even photographing theater troupes and producing the occasional nude postcard to make the studio profitable.
Paul changed the celebrated Nadar aesthetic in order to accommodate this new clientele. Paul and Ernestine embraced conventional studio photographic props that Nadar despised, such as artificial backdrops, contrived poses, and elaborate furniture to create a more decorative style. Although the photographs show more generic ex- pressions and less personality than in his father’s portraits of his friends, this fashionable aesthetic catered to the new style and allowed the studio to financially prosper.
Between 1880 and 1885, Paul ran the Nadar studio. Because of his aesthetic and production methods, critics have portrayed Paul as less concerned with craftman- ship than his father. Paul worked with gelatin instead of collodion negatives to increase the number of negatives and did not use salted paper or albumen for printing as Nadar had done. Therefore, when he reworked his father’s glass negatives, his prints lacked the delicacy and degrees of tonality of the originals. In addition, he often altered Nadar’s negatives, minimizing the rich backgrounds to make more pictorialist, and hence more fashionable, images. Although not actively involved in the studio, Nadar disapproved of these changes and, after years of fighting, father and son were estranged around 1885.
This estrangement proved to be brief as in 1886 the Nadars worked together on the celebrated Entretien de M. Nadar avec M. Chevreul, le jour de son centenaire (M. Nadar Interviews M. Chevreul on his Hundredth Birthday). Intended to illustrate scientific and techno- logical progress, the photographs anticipated the photo- graphic series and photojournalism. Originally made for the newspaper L’Illustration, eight of the twenty-seven photographs had a delayed debut on September 5, 1886, in Le Journal Illustré. Termed the first photo-interview, it was to be a conversation between the noted chemist and color theorist Eugène Chevreul and Félix Nadar on the former’s birthday recorded by Nadar on a photophone and photographed by Paul using a camera with a roll- film attachment, which due to technical problems had to later be rewritten by Nadar.
In 1886, Paul Nadar took control of the Nadar Studio and began photographing from a hot-air balloon as his father had earlier, even photographing the infamous fire at the at l’Opéra Comique in 1887. He exhibited these works at the Société française de la photographie and was caricatured in the press as “The Fearless Paul Nadar” for his courage and his photographic experimen- tation. In 1890, Paul embarked on a trip across Europe and Asia to Turkestan following the ancient silk route. Paul acted as an early photojournalist, documenting his travels and photographing sites as diverse as bazaars, mosques, and desert landscapes. During his voyage, he worked with experimental new equipment from Eastman Kodak that used flexible films, which proved more portable and instantaneous than the standard glass plates. In 1893, he became the French agent for George Eastman and Eastman Dry Plate & Film Company, known as Eastman Kodak, and opened the first Parisian Office of Photography, which sold photographic equip- ment, including hand cameras, designed for amateur photographers.
Paul presented his work to prominent photography associations, including la Société Française de la Pho- tographie and la Société des Hautes Etudes Commercia- les. In 1891, he founded the journal Paris-Photographe, which, despite publishing prominent pictorials, was in financial trouble by 1894. The same year, he married Marie Degrandi, an actress at the Opéra Comique. In 1895, Félix Nadar officially transferred legal ownership of the Nadar Studio to his son, which he ran until his death on September 1, 1939. The Nadar studio, run by Paul’s daughter, Marthe closed a few years after Paul’s death. In 1950, Paul’s second wife, Anne Nadar, sold the photographic collection, archives, and documents from the Nadar studio to the French government. The Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites acquired about 60,000 negatives while the Bib- liothèque Nationale acquired all prints, archives, and documents made by and concerning Félix and Paul Nadar. Discovered amongst the 400,000 glass nega- tives acquired by the Ministry of Education were Paul’s photographs of Marcel Proust and his circle of friends and family members. In 2001, Anne-Marie Bernard edited a critically acclaimed book, The World of Proust, as seen by Paul Nadar, which featured a selection of these images.

Paul Nadar was born on February 8, 1856, in Paris. He was the only son of Ernestine and Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar. Paul Nadar was trained in pho- tography by his father, the celebrated portraitist. First as artistic director and later as manager, he ran his father’s third and final studio at 51 rue d’Anjou. Under Paul, the new studio catered to a more affluent clientele and prospered. As a photographer, Paul made fashionable images of the bourgeois and aristocratic clientele. In 1890, he began shooting from a hot-air balloon as his father had earlier. After these works were exhibited, he was caricatured in the press as “The Fearless Paul Nadar” for his courage and his experimentation with photography. In 1890, Paul photographed sites in Europe and Asia along the ancient silk route. He worked with new equipment from Eastman Kodak and, in 1893, he became an agent for George Eastman in France. He inherited the Nadar Studio after his father’s death in 1910. The studio survived only a few years after Paul’s death on September 1, 1939.

POSSIDÓNIO (1806–1896)

Joaquim Possidónio Narciso da Silva was one of the main 19th century Portuguese photographers. Par- ticularly during the 1860s, he produced beautiful salt paper prints of Portuguese monuments, however he is best known as an architect and archeologist. His pho- tography was, as a matter of fact instrumental to his research in architecture and archeology. Very young he went with the Portuguese Royal Family escap- ing from the Napoleonic invasions to Brazil. Latter, between 1821 and 1834, he studied and worked in France and Italy. He was a founding member of the Real Associação dos Arquitectos Civis e Arqueólogos Portugueses in 1863 and latter of the Museu Nacional de Arquelogia. Before that, in 1862–63 he published the illustrated magazine Revista Pitoresca e Descritiva, which, in several issues, presented 26 photographs as salted paper prints of some of the most important Portuguese monuments. As a photographer, as well as an architect and archeologist he promoted nationalism by means of knowledge of monuments and history. In 1875 he was a member of the commission charged of the reform of fine arts where he proposed the inclusion of photography in museums.


James Nasmyth’s place in the history of photography lies in the area of scientific illustration. He was a suc- cessful inventor who was able to retire in 1856 to pursue his interests as an amateur astronomer. Nasmyth had built his first telescope in 1827 and began to study the surface of the moon in 1846. He made a series of draw- ings recording his observations as photography was not yet able to record images under these conditions. These drawings received a medal when they were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Nasmyth then constructed three dimensional models of the surface of the moon based on these drawings. These models were then photographed under conditions of bright sunlight to emphasis the contours of the terrain.
These photographs were of the special type used in the Woodburytype process. In the process of developing these special photographs, the lighter areas were rinsed away, leaving intaglio matrices. Lead was pressed into these matrices to form a relief and this relief was used to print the illustration in the book. The result was an image that more faithfully reproduced the continuous value gradations within the emulsion of a photographic print than the hatching technique of engravings. These Woodburytypes were published in a book titled The Moon as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite in 1874 in collaboration with James Carpenter, Nasmyth’s friend and a professional astronomer associated with the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
The creation of Woodburytypes was a cumbersome and time-consuming procedure. At the time, however, it was a practical medium for printing a photograph with a text. Tipping actual photographs into a text strained the limits of producing large amounts of positive prints from a single negative. The economic alternative of an engraving made from an original photograph allowed the intervention of the hand to subvert the objective value of photography as a mechanical imaging process which had been one of photography’s most valued attributes from its earliest development.
The Woodburytypes maintained the integrity associ- ated with mechanical imaging technology as objectivity was a central concern for science and scientific illus- tration. Thus the Woodburytype would have seemed to be the perfect medium for scientific illustration despite being cumbersome and expensive. It is ironic that Nasmyth’s use of drawings and the construction of models, accepted practice in scientific research and pub- lication, may be seen as subverting the very truth value of the photograph that made photography a valued tool for science. Nasmyth’s models of the moon’s surface reflected his desire to present “a rational explanation of the surface details of the moon which should be in ac- cordance with the generally received theory of planetary formation.” Some of the models were even designed to simulate volcanic activity, including eruptions. Theories of planetary formation were based on contemporary knowledge of the earth’s geology and Nasmyth himself had observed volcanic activity during his travels. Yet the models involved the use of the hand in their construc- tion, defying the advantages believed to be an inherent quality of mechanical reproduction.

Nasmyth, James and James Hill Carpenter. Glass Globe. Cracked by internal pressure illustrating the cause of bright streaks radiating from Tyoho. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Museum.

The value of scientific illustration is based on an implicit faith in the processes of observation, reason, and representation. Theories of planetary formation were dependent on the reliability of the knowledge of the geology of the earth. This reasoning by analogy was based on the belief that similar effects had similar causes. Nasmyth applied this conceptual algorithm to a comparison of a dried apple and the back of a human hand. His reasoning was simple: similarities between the skin of the apple and the skin on the back of a human hand could be the product of similar subcutaneous phe- nomena. The evidence was supplied by the juxtaposition of photographic reproductions.
Naysmyth’s faith in the objectivity of his drawings and his models was consistent with the scientific prac- tice of the time. It was also consistent with his use of drawings and models when developing a new idea for a machine. Naysmyth was a very successful inventor. He was constructing miniature steam engines at the age of 17 and was commissioned by the Scottish Society of the Arts to create a steam powered vehicle capable of carrying up to six people in 1827. Nasmyth started his own business in 1834 at the age of 26 in which he suc- cessfully built steam engines and machine tools and, in 1839, drew sketches for the design of a steam hammer which he eventually patented in 1842.
Nasmyth’s sketches and drawings represent the first stage in the concrete realization of an idea. The working models he constructed represent the second stage and demonstrate that his ideas do indeed work. The third stage is the manufacturing of the full-scale machine. In a move that was prescient for the time, he recorded these sketches in photographs as early as 1839 as record of and as proof that he had worked out the idea. There are no records of photographs having been made of the models or full-scale machines as if they themselves were the concrete documentation for the idea. In the case of the photographs of Nasmyth’s mod- els of the moon’s surfaces, complete with simulated volcanic activity, one might conclude that the models themselves were the demonstration and proof of his ideas. The photographs and resulting Woodburytype illustrations were a means of making his ideas avail- able to a wider public.
Nasmyth credited his ability to develop his ideas through drawings to the art instruction he had received from his father, Alexander Nasmyth. We can also trace his interest in mechanical reproduction, illustration and model making to the same source. Alexander Nasmyth used a camera obscura in his art instruction and created models when redesigning estates. The owners of the estates he painted often asked him to redesign their es- tates to more closely resemble the imaginative landscape paintings. Alexander Nasmyth was also considered the founder of the Scottish school of landscape painting and was also known as an artist.


  1. Hi
    I dont know if you will get this- but I was very interested in the above blog

    I have recently come into possession several photos of family members taken by Nadard at 51 Rue D'Anjou-they may have been taken by Paul rather than Gaspard Felix- but they were taken at 51 Rue D'Anjoe before the family moved to Ireland in 1874. Do you know if Gaspard Felix worked at 51 Rue D'Anjoe- as I had though that was just his son.

    Paul Gueret

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