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Monday, July 18, 2011

The Man Who Inspired Jules Verne

Nadar self-portrait, circa 1856.

Félix Nadar, the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910) was an important photographer and journalist who is considered one of the best portrait photographers of his time.  Born into a family of printers, he started to study medicine but when his father's publishing house failed, he was forced to earn a living.

A depiction of Nadar and his balloon by caricaturist André Gill.

He started writing articles that he signed "Nadar".  This was a shortening of a nickname "Tourne à dard" from his youth gained by his talent for caricature.  It became his professional signature and the name by which he is known today.  In 1842 he moved from Lyon to Paris and began selling his caricatures to humor magazines.

Portrait of Frank Liszt, date unknown.

In 1845 he published his first novel, La Robe de Déjanira.  (Déjanira was the wife of Heracles, who gave him a robe when he returned from his twelve labors that unbeknownst to her was poisoned, causing his death.  This was a musical drama written by Handel based on writings by Sophocles and Ovid.)  The following year he worked as a caricaturist for La Silhouette, Le Charivari, and in 1848 for Revue comique.  He later worked for Charles Philipon's Journal pour rire, which later became Journal amusant.

Portrait of PaulGustave Doré, circa 1855-1859.

In 1853 he still considered himself a caricaturist, but had become a well-known photographer. He was one of the first French photographers to achieve a pure aesthetic in his portraits, vastly different from the contemporary stiff and rigid style.  He opened up a portrait studio, and became a sought-after photographer.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, circa 1864.

His sharp eye for caricature served him well in photography.  He had a keen eye for detail and was able to identify the characteristics that made each person unique. Dramatic lighting, used to sculpt the faces of his subjects, was one of his trademarks.  He used 8"x10" glass-plate negatives, which were larger than the popular sizes of daguerreotypes that were then used.

Nasser-al-DinShah Qajar, king of Persia, date unknown.

In 1854 he completed his first "Panthéon Nadar" - a huge lithographic panorama depicting caricatures of prominent Parisians.  It was published that year in Laterne magique, and then in 1858 in Le Figaro, but was unfinished.  He had used photos for some of the people he caricatured for his second "Panthéon Nadar", but taking his own photographs for this project had spurred him to pursue photography.

A newspaper illustration of the balloon accident at Neustadt
am Rübenberge at Hanover in 1863 by Henry de Montaut.

He was an incessant innovator.  In 1855 he patented his concept of using aerial photography for mapmaking and surveying.  In 1858 he took the world's first aerial photograph from a balloon.  He had built a huge balloon he christened Le Géant, and remained a passionate aerialist until he, his wife, and other passengers were injured in an accident in Germany in 1863.  The occasion of the first aerial photograph prompted Honoré Daumier to create a lithograph of Nadar photographing Paris.

Honoré Daumier's lithograph, circa 1862, of "Nadar elevating photography to the height of art".

Nadar believed that the future belonged to "heavier-than-air" machines, an idea shared by Jules Verne.  Nadar became president, and Verne secretary, of "The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines".  Nadar was the inspiration for Verne's character Michael Ardan in his novel From the Earth to the Moon.  Nadar's balloon was the motivation for Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon.  When he was visiting Brussels with Le Géant, Nadar erected physical barriers to keep the crowd at a distance.  Crowd control barriers are still called Nadar barriers in Belgium.

George Sand, circa 1877.

In 1858 he became one of the first photographers to photograph the sewers and catacombs of Paris with artificial light, using electric arc lamps and Bunsen batteries.

The Paris catacombs.  Image courtesy of MOMA.

He was the consummate showman, and never missed an opportunity for promotion.  When he opened his portrait studio, he painted the building it was in red, and printed his name in giant letters across fifty feet of wall.  The building became a local landmark and hangout for the Parisian intelligentsia.  When the group of artists who were eventually to call themselves the "Impressionists" couldn't find a gallery to hold their first exhibit, Nadar loaned them his studio.  The notoriety of this new style of art created attention for Nadar and thus was good for business.

Eugéne Delacroix, date unknown.

One of his most intriguing projects was a "photographic interview".  In 1886 he took a series of 21 photographs of himself and French scientist Michel Eugéne Chevreul having a conversation.  Chevreul's responses to Nadar's questions were each picture's captions, showing another dimension of Chevreul's personality. This was done on the eve of Chevreul's 100th birthday, and appeared in the September 1886 edition of Journal illustré.

Talking with centenarian Michel Eugéne Chevreul.
Image courtesy of MOMA.

Nadar wrote novels essays, satires, and autobiographical works, including his memoir, Quand j'étais, published in 1899.  He founded the journal Paris photographe in 1891, edited by his son Paul.  Because of his work in and contributions to photography, the "Prix Nadar" is named for him.  This is an annual prize awarded for a photography book that is edited in France.  It was created in 1955, and is judged by a panel of photojournalists and publishing professionals.

Self-portrait, date unknown, probably before 1863.

A man who was not only unafraid of the future but who embraced it, he was a tireless creator and dreamer who made good on his ideas.  His photographs leave us a unique record of his time and attest to his talents and creativity.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating to read this BLOG. Referred to it by a mad Canadian monk who lives a solitary life in the utter desolation of Victoria, BC. My military 'call sign' is (and has been, lo these many years) 'DocBoink', so all the more fun to encounter 'Cerebral Boinkfest'. Tout le monde est une scène et nous sommes tous acteurs mais déboutés qui n'ont jamais fait le choix de films de série B ... (non attribué à Céline).
    Cheers, DocBoink