Félix Nadar – Pioneering Visual Biographer

Day 320 of Colourisation Project – March 23

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

What do Sarah Bernhardt, Alexandre Dumas (pere), Alexandre Dumas (fils), George Sand, Franz Liszt, Édouard Manet, Hector Berlioz, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Doré, Honoré Daumier and Victor Hugo all have in common?

They were all shot by Félix Nadar. Photographically speaking that is! Widely considered the best portrait photographer of his day, Nadar was a master of visual biography. By 1870, he had amassed an impressive photographic archive which included just about every writer, painter, musician, dancer, singer and actor of note in the 19th century.

Félix Nadar

Self Portrait – Félix Nadar  c1860 ~ Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Using large eight-by-ten-inch glass-plate negatives, and adopting a direct psychological approach to his subject, Nadar’s portraits revealed the inner personalities of his sitters. Bust and half-length poses focusing on the subject’s face with solid backdrops and dramatic lighting were trademarks of his studio.

Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1820, Nadar was a French caricaturist, journalist, novelist, print maker, draughtsman, balloonist as well as outstanding photographer.

A shrewd entrepreneur, he took on the pseudonym, Nadar (from ‘Tourne à dard’, a nickname he gained because of his talent for caricature). Nadar was an unabashed self promoter and ‘Nadar’ became both his artistic signature and commercial logo.

Nadar was also a pioneer in aerial photography, which he executed from various hot air balloons. He championed the revolutionary concept of the aeroplane by building, and nearly killing himself in an enormous 190ft‑high red gas balloon, Le Géant (The Giant); the inspiration for Jules Verne’s, Five Weeks in a Balloon. Nadar was also the inspiration for the character of Michael Ardan in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

Verne dubbed him “an Icarus with replaceable wings.” Realising the limitations of hot air balloons, they established “The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines” with Nadar as president and Verne as secretary.

From one extreme to the other, Nadar pioneered the use of artificial lighting using electric arc lamps and bunsen batteries while shooting in the catacombs of Paris.  He was the first photographer to venture underground and capture over 100 amazing images of the catacombs and sewers of Paris. Not such an easy task when you consider all the bulky equipment he would have had to take down with him.

In 1891 he founded the journal, Paris Photographe, and in 1899 at the age of 80, published his memoirs, Quand j’étais photographe. (When I Was a Photographer).

Félix Nadar died on this day, 23 March 1910 at the age of 89 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In 1979, sixty-nine years after his death, he was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame.


A bygone maker of caricatures, a draftsman without knowing it, an impertinent fisher of bylines in the little newspapers, mediocre author of disdained novels… and finally a refugee in the Botany Bay of photography.    ~   Félix Nadar, Self-description, 1899

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