Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon]

Dates1820 - 1910
RolesArtist, Maker, Photographer, Lithographer, Engraver, Author
BornParis, France
DiedParis, France

So wrote a critic of Gaspard Félix Tournachon in 1859. Tournachon's nickname, Nadar, derived from youthful slang, but became his professional signature and the name by which he is best known today. Poor but talented, Nadar began by scratching out a living as a freelance writer and caricaturist. His writings and illustrations made him famous before he began to photograph. His keenly honed camera eye came from his successful career as a satirical cartoonist, in which the identifying characteristic of a subject was reduced to a single distinct facet; that skill proved effective in capturing the personality of his photographic subjects.

Nadar opened his first photography studio in 1854, but he only practiced for six years. He focused on the psychological elements of photography, aiming to reveal the moral personalities of his sitters rather than make attractive portraits. Bust- or half-length poses, solid backdrops, dramatic lighting, fine sculpturing, and concentration on the face were trademarks of his studio. His use of eight-by-ten-inch glass-plate negatives, which were significantly larger than the popular sizes of daguerreotypes, acccentuated those effects.

At one point, a commentator said, "[a]ll the outstanding figures of [the] era--literary, artistic, dramatic, political, intellectual--have filed through his studio." In most instances these subjects were Nadar's friends and acquaintances. His curiosity led him beyond the studio into such uncharted locales as the catacombs, which he was one of the first persons to photograph using artificial light.