As one of the earliest professional portrait photographers (and to this day one of the best), Felix Tournachon, known as Nadar, endowed his generation with perpetual faces, enabling us to look into the eyes of history. History currently looks back from the walls of the Musée d’Orsay, where nearly 100 Nadar portraits make up a picture gallery of the Second Empire.
Nadar’s portraiture fascinates not only because he personalizes the greats of Bohemian Paris, but because he does so with consummate artistry. He once wrote that anyone could learn to work a camera within a day, but that to take a truly telling picture, an “intimate portrait” that revealed the essence of the sitter, required the skills of a lifetime.
Even before he started taking pictures, Nadar was a student of the human face. He first made likenesses as a caricaturist. His earliest large project in this format, the “Panthéon Nadar,” features both the meticulous craft and the unabashed grandiloquence that would become his trademarks. In this work, some 250 literary luminaries snake around a single sheet of paper, rendered with the oversized heads and spindly bodies then typical of the genre. Nadar’s skill as an observer allows him to pull features just far enough out of proportion to make each face hold its own in the crowd, an amazing feat given the numbers involved. Though it was a commercial failure, the Panthéon surely paid off in two respects: in attracting attention (always a plus in Nadar’s book), and in sharpening his eye for the telling expression.
In 1855, he became a professional photographer, and was soon exploring expressions of a more universal kind. He hired the mime Jean-Charles Deburau (sone of the mime immortalized in “Les Enfants du Paradis”) to pose in whiteface, mimicking the attitudes of fear, surprise, pain and drunkenness. Though these pictures were primarily intended to advertise Nadar’s studio, they also tie into a centuries-old fine arts tradition – the visual classification of the emotions. Throughout his career, Nadar would be a tireless advocate of photography’s potential to rival fine art – these pictures were among the first sallies in his efforts to win greater respect for the medium.
As energetic as he could be in defense of his metier, restraint marks Nadar’s portraiture and is a key aspect of its magic. In a particularly lovely shot at the Orsay, Marie Laurencin sits with her back to the lens, neck and shoulders gleaming beneath her coiled hair. The artist Honoré Daumier’s populist stance is apparent in his pictured stance – hands shoved deep in the pockets of an everyday overcoat. Even when a subject allows for deliberate drama, Nadar underplays it – only a few tassles reveal Sarah Bernhardt’s drape to be a theater curtain. All along the Orsay walls, heads turn exquisitely so into the light; drapes and clothing are tellingly drawn; hands and eyes are caught in myriad different dispositions, the overall effect creating surprisingly potent messages about the sitters. Nadar claims never to have posed them. He chatted with them instead, for hours if necessary, waiting for them to settle into a revealing attitude.
The patience and care needed to create pictures as quicksilver as these would be noteworthy in any man – all the more so in one who proclaimed himself a revolutionary. Nadar once set out with a column of Frenchmen to stage the liberation of Poland, but German border guards halted them in their tracks. Many years later, he would participate in another kind of revolution by lending his studio to Claude Monet and his friends for a small exhibition of their paintings.
Given his energies and his unsatiable curiosity, it is not surprising that by the end of the 1850s, he tired of portraits and began to explore another object of fascination: Paris. His pursuits included plumbing the sewers, documenting the catacombs and drifting far above the rooftops in his hot air balloon, portraying the city from on high.
Intriguing as these later images are, they lack the soulfulness of the studio portraits. In documenting the famous figures of his generation, Nadar sealed his own immortality. More than any other photographer, he engrained in our consciousness the historical face of his day.
“Nadar: Les Années Créatrices, 1854-1860,” Musée d’Orsay, quai Anatole France.