Félix Nadar was one of the most fascinating characters of the 19th century – bohemian, showman, caricaturist and proponent of powered flight though he was, he is best known as the world’s first great portrait photographer.
Nadar was born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in Paris in 1820, the son of a printer and bookseller. The young Nadar was studying medicine when his father died and he was forced to give up his studies and seek work as a caricaturist and journalist for several newspapers.
He fell in with the likes of Charles Baudelaire and others of the Parisian bohemian group and they nicknamed him Tournadar which he later shortened to Nadar as his pseudonym.
Nadar’s caricatures first appeared in Le Charivari in 1848 and the following year he founded the ‘Revue Comique’ and the ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’, literally ‘The Little Journal for Laughs’.
He became interested in the developing art of the photography (pardon the pun) and in 1855 he opened his own studio where he captured portraits of the fashionable set, including politicians, authors, artists, actors and musicians. Unlike other photographers, Nadar shunned elaborate sets and preferred to pose his subjects in natural daylight.
Although his preference was for daylight, Nadar pioneered the use of artificial lighting so that he could take photographs underground in the Parisian catacombs. He was also the first person to take aerial photographs which he did from the basket of a hot air balloon.
In 1863, he commissioned the construction of an enormous balloon that he called Le Géant (The Giant) which inspired his friend Jules Verne to write Five Days in a Balloon. Unfortunately, Le Géant was badly damaged on its second flight and this convinced Nadar that hot air balloons were not the future of flight and he and Verne set up ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’.
But until that day dawned, Nadar persisted with his ballooning and during the siege of Paris in 1870, he organised flights to carry mail to and from the city and so created the first airmail service.
Nadar continued to photograph the great and the good at his studios in Paris and Marseilles and at the age of eighty, he published his memoirs Quand J’étais Photographe (When I Was a Photographer) which wasn’t translated and published in English until 2015.
The image of him on the cover is a fake, having been taken in his studio with the basket hanging just a few feet from the floor and the clouds merely a painted backdrop. And though Nadar is shown staring keenly, he was actually myopic and could only have seen afar with his glasses on.
Nadar died in Paris in 1909 at the age of 89 but the work of the studio continued under the direction of his son Paul Nadar.