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 Text from A World History of Photography

Profile: Nadar

In many ways Nadar (Gaspard Mix Tournachon) typifies the best qualities of the bohemian circle of writers and artists that settled in Paris during the Second Empire. Born into a family of printer tradespeople of radical leanings, young Nadar became interested in many of the era's most daring ideas in politics, literature, and science. After an ordinary middle-class education and a brief stab at medical school, he turned to journalism, first writing theater reviews and then literary pieces. Although a career in literature seemed assured, he gave up writing in 1848 to enlist in a movement to free Poland from foreign oppressors, an adventure that ended suddenly when he was captured and returned to Paris. There followed a period of involvement with graphic journalism, during which he created cartoons and caricatures of well-known political and cultural figures for the satirical press. This culminated in the Pantheon Nadar, a lithographic depiction of some 300 members of the French intelligentsia. Only mildly successful financially, it made Nadar an immediate celebrity; more important, it introduced him to photography, from which he had drawn some of the portraits.

In 1853, Nadar set up his brother Adrian as a photographer and took lessons himself, apparently with the intention of joining him in the enterprise. However, despite the evident sensitivity of Adrian's portrait of the sculptor Emile Blavier his lack of discipline is believed to have caused Nadar to open a studio on his own, moving eventually to the Boulevard des Capucines, the center of the entertainment district. He continued his bohemian life, filling the studio with curiosities and objets d'art and entertaining personalities in the arts and literature, but despite this flamboyant personal style he remained a serious artist, intent on creating images that were both life-enhancing and discerning.

Ever open to new ideas and discoveries, Nadar was the first in France to make photographs underground with artificial light and the first to photograph Paris from the basket of an ascendant balloon. Even though a proponent of heavier-than-air traveling devices, he financed the construction of Le Giant, a balloon that met with an unfortunate accident on its second trip. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in setting up the balloon postal service that made it possible for the French government to communicate with those in Paris during the German blockade in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Ruined financially by this brief but devastating conflict, Nadar continued to write and photograph, running an establishment with his son Paul that turned out slick commercial work. Always a rebel, at one point he lent the photo studio to a group of painters who wished to bypass the Salon in order to exhibit their work, thus making possible the first exhibition of the Impressionists in April, 1874. Although he was to operate still another studio in Marseilles during the 1880s and '90s Nadar's last photographic idea of significance was a series of exposures made by his son in 1886 as he interviewed chemist Eugene Chevreul on his 100th birthday, thus foreshadowing the direction that picture journalism was to take. During his last years he continued to think of himself as "a daredevil, always on the lookout for currents to swim against." At his death, just before the age of ninety, he had outlived all those he had satirized in the famous Pantheon, which had started him in photography.