Do you know who is the first celebrities’ photographer?

Photo credit: Nadar; by Wikipedia


Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (6 April 1820 – 20 March 1910), was known by the pseudonym Nadar. He was a French caricaturist, journalist, novelist, balloonist, and proponent of heavier-than-air flight. However, he is most prominent as one of the first experimenter photographers and in 1858, the first person to take aerial photographs from a hot-air balloon. Interestingly, he was also the first who took photos underground while experimenting with artificial lights in the Catacombs of Paris.

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) c. 1863, studio portrait, carte-de-visite

Life and works

Nadar started as a caricaturist and novelist in various newspapers. During this period, he became a part of the Parisian bohemian intellectuals as Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, etc. Later on, he changed to photography and in 1854 he opened his first studio. He was captivated by portrait photography, which led to his vast collection of some of the most famous personalities of his time as Jules Verne (who was a close friend of him), Sarah Bernard, Eugene Delacroix, Émile Zola, Franz Liszt, George Sand, and many more. Nadar preferred to take his photos in natural sets, in daylight, and refused to follow the fashion of arranging lavish decors. He was a master of women's portraits and managed to emphasize the internal beauty and character of all of his models.

Nadar élevant la Photographie à la hauteur de l'Art ("Nadar elevating Photography to Art"). Lithograph by Honoré Daumier, appearing in Le Boulevard, 25 May 1863

  Nadar was also a keen aeronaut. In 1862, he along with Jules Verne, established Société pour la recherche de la navigation aérienne, which later became La Société d'encouragement de la locomotion aérienne au moyen du plus lourd que l'air (The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines). His passion for flying made him the first to take aerial photographs, which was a very difficult process at that time. To make this possible he used the wet plate collodion process and prepared the plates while aloft. A really tricky task, which led to a lot of failures. Nevertheless, his persistence was rewarded in 1858 and became an inspiration for a lot of caricatures of him.

In 1863, Nadar had the idea to construct the biggest balloon ever and he commissioned Eugène Godard for that project. The huge balloon was called Le Géant (The Giant) and was 60 meters (196 ft) high and with a capacity of 6,000 m3. The Giant inspired Jules Verne for his novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, A Journey of Discovery by Three Englishmen in Africa.

Another great enterprise ventured by him was during the Siege of Paris in 1870-71, when Nadar was organizing balloon flights transferring the mail from besieged Paris to the rest of the world. Thus Nadar established the first airmail service in the world.

He was also close with the movement of the Impressionists and in 1874, he lent his studio to them for the organization of their first exhibition.

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon was truly an active and modern type of person whose interest and experiments developed new techniques, ideas and brought inspiration to a great number of fellow artists, inventors, writers, and many more.

Below you can enjoy some of his most famous portraits:

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