Ringmaster, publicist, and performer in a highly theatrical life, the legendary Nadar wore many hats—those of journalist, bohemian, left-wing agitator, playwright, caricaturist, and aeronaut. He had success in all these roles, but what he did best was collect a pantheon of friends whom he honored with his generous and perceptive photographic portraits.
Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1820, the son of a liberal publisher, Nadar grew up in Paris in the heady ferment of Romanticism. Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Delacroix were his early heroes; Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire his maturing friends. Nadar’s imagination, wit, and spontaneity, like his passion for the colorful, unconventional, and free, were tendencies shared with both generations of Romantic writers and artists. That these qualities are also natural to youth is appropriate, for the epoch was modernity’s first act, a time when self-expression was a principled achievement and a serious artist could construct an identity on an adolescent nickname blazoned like a banner.
Early in 1854, a banker friend proposed backing Nadar in a portrait photography business. Photography was just then perceived to be a lucrative affair; the new collodion-on-glass negatives produced portraits as sharp as daguerreotypes, but more easily and in multiple copies. Overcommitted to his activities as a caricaturist, Nadar persuaded his younger brother Adrien Tournachon—a lackluster portrait painter frequently on his dole—to be the principal operator. After paying for his photography lessons with Gustave Le Gray, Nadar was brushed off by Adrien, who opened the studio alone.
Pushing Adrien into photography, however, had piqued Nadar’s own interest in the camera—initially, perhaps, as a rapid sketching tool for caricatures. He installed a darkroom in his garden apartment at 113 rue Saint-Lazare, and tried out the new technique on friends who came to visit. Meanwhile, Adrien, lax and disorganized, was floundering. In September 1854, he convinced Nadar, recently married and over his ears in debt, to help save his business on the boulevard. “I gave it everything I could,” Nadar wrote, “work, money [6,000 francs of his wife’s dowry], personal relations, and my pseudonyum, which followed me.”
Nadar transformed Adrien’s languishing studio overnight, and his bustling activity dominated the business until January 16, 1855, when the brothers quarreled and split. Adrien insisted on continuing to call himself Nadar jeune (Nadar the Younger), while Nadar maintained that his name, which he had made famous, was his alone to use. After more than a year of vain negotiations to reclaim exclusive rights to his moniker, Nadar finally took Adrien to court. The suit and the rivalry it cloaked dragged on for three years, until 1859, during which time Nadar made his finest portraits, always working at home in a relaxed and personal manner, and exclusively with friends or celebrities—of his aesthetic and political persuasion, of course—whom he invited to the rue Saint-Lazare studio. The sympathetic quality of Nadar’s attention, his seductive energy, his jokes and stories, all served his photography, which he understood to be a private theater of personality, a stage for intimate, extemporaneous, collaborative performances between himself and his trusted companions.
In preparing his suit against his brother, Nadar explained why he was a master of this subtle intuitive art. “What can [not] be learned … is the moral intelligence of your subject; it’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model, makes you size him up, grasp his habits and ideas in accordance with his character, and allows you to render, not an indifferent plastic reproduction that could be made by the lowliest laboratory worker, commonplace and accidental, but the resemblance that is most familiar and most favorable, the intimate resemblance. It’s the psychological side of photography—the word doesn’t seem overly ambitious to me.”
Meanwhile, Adrien blustered and faltered. When Nadar won the last appeal in June 1859, his younger brother was no longer even the semblance of a threat. Always unstable, but now demoralized and bankrupt as well, Adrien lived on Nadar’s charity and in his shadow for the rest of his fruitless life.
In 1860, Nadar moved from his cozy garden apartment and studio to a huge atelier in the building his friends Gustave Le Gray and the Bisson brothers had just vacated at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. The rent was astronomical and the lavish reconstruction ruinous, but Nadar’s expenditures bought the triumph of his name—a gigantic signature scrawled on the glass facade of his palace and in the consciousness of the public.
Now the preeminent portrait emporium in Paris, Nadar’s atelier attracted the bourgeois clientele of the boulevard. But with rare exceptions, as when George Sand or Sarah Bernhardt came for a sitting, Nadar left the operation to the staff, and eventually to his son Paul. He had already portrayed what was notable in his epoch and now shifted to a pursuit of the future. He photographed underground with artificial light, encouraged the development of aerial navigation, and flew the biggest balloon ever built, the Géant. After more or less retiring in 1873, and until his death in 1910, Nadar recycled his continuing passions and past escapades in several volumes of picturesque memoirs.