Pioneers of Photography #3 - Félix Nadar



Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known the world as Nadar, was a French aeronaut, caricaturist and photographer, who was born in Paris in 1910.


From 1850 he commenced a series of photographic portraits of prominent contemporary personalities, among them Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt, George Sand, Guy de Maupassant, Edouard Manet, Ernest Shackleton and Georges Clemenceau. And around 1865 he created his startling and innovative Revolving Self-Portait.


He experimented in the creation of artificial light by means of the burning of powder of magnesium, and in 1861 used the technique to produce photographic images deep below ground in the Paris catacombs. The long exposure of 20 minutes necessitated the use of dummies rather than living people.


Always curious about the latest technical advances of his time, he developed a lively curiosity in balloons, and in 1858 he took the first ever aerial photograph from an altitude of 80 metres. His airborne exploit was caricatured in this image by Honoré Daumier, and it also inspired the Jules Verne novels Five Weeks in a Balloon, and  From the Earth to the Moon, the hero of which has the name Michel Ardan, an anagram of Nadar. But tragedy was to follow when an immense balloon he constructed, appropriately named le Géant (the Giant), with he and his wife aboard, landed badly and was dragged for 16 kilometres, with both being badly injured.


Catastrophe near Hanover of le Géant in 1863
In the seige of Paris in 1870-71, following the débâcle of the Franco-Prussian War, he created with others a company for the construction of military balloons to be used in enemy surveillance and communications. A total of 66 balloons were mass produced in the period September 1870 to January 1871, marking the beginning of the aeronautical industry.


In the aftermath of the defeat, he returned once more to photography, and had one last triumph at the Exposition Universelle de Paris, a retrospective of his work organised by his son. He died in Paris on 21 March 1910.

Sarah Bernhardt
photographed by
Félix Nadar




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