When asked the question, "Who is the world's greatest photographer?" French theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980) answered without hesitation, "Nadar." This is the pseudonym made famous by Gaspard-Felix Tournacho, who was born in Paris on April 6, 1820, the first child of printer Victor Tournachon and Therese Maillet. Educated in Paris, the family then moved to Lyon, where the young Tournachon briefly studied medicine. After returning to Paris in 1838, he adopted the name Nadar, and for the next several years associated with a Bohemian group of artists and writers that included Charles Beaudelaire.
He gradually turned his attentions from writing to drawing, and in 1854, his collection of caricatures of famous Parisians received considerable notoriety. This was also the year Nadar married Ernestine-Constance Lefevre and helped his brother Adrien finance his photographic instruction with master photographer Gustave Le Gray and to establish his photographic studio. He soon opened his own studio, and by the late 1850s had become one of the most successful portrait photographers in Paris. He became a member of the Societe Francaise de Photographie in 1856, and his photographs were featured in its Salon exhibit three years' later. By this time, Nadar developed what became his trademark style of simplistic backgrounds, and a patented process of faded print edges. He wanted the portrait to be free of visual distractions, which is why he would insist his subjects wear dark clothing and often hide their hands or conceal them inside their clothing.
Nadar was not content with portrait photography, and soon expanded his artistic repertoire to include equestrian and aerial photography. In 1858, his first foray into aerial photography was accomplished from a balloon that was tied near the Arc de Triomphe. Sadly, these photographs seem to have disappeared over time. However, his initial success led to more risky expeditions as Nadar became an enthusiastic aeronaut, and purchased an enormous hot-air balloon known as le Geant (Giant). It was filled with 200,000 cubic feet of gas and provided all of the necessities for a weeklong journey. However, these dangerous trips often resulted in serious mishaps and injuries, which finally convinced Nadar he should keep his feet on the ground. This did not mean the ambitious photographer could use his camera to explore underground. During the 1860s, Nadar secured the rights to photograph the sewers and catacombs of Paris that Victor Hugo had immortalized in Les Miserables.
Nadar decided to retire to write his memoirs in 1873, and turned the operations of his studio over to his son Paul (1856-1939). However, he returned briefly as a photographer in Marseilles in the late 1890s, but sold that portrait studio in 1899. The next year, Nadar's photography was celebrated at the Exposition Universelle. Age finally caught up with Nadar, who spent his last years staying close to home and caring for his beloved Ernestine. Fourteen months after the death of his wife, Nadar died one month shy of his ninetieth birthday on March 20, 1910. His famous studio closed after Paul Nadar's death in 1939.
1875 The Aerial World (New York: D. Appleton and Co.), pp. 510-512.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 971-974.
2011 Introduction to Remote Sensing, 5th Ed. (New York: The Guilford Press), p. 7.
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