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Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Nadar Self-Portraits, 1865

As artists today, many of us would be "lost" without photos to work from. Some of us have learned to use them and rely on them more than others, but I would guess just about every painter today has used them at some point in time. Ever wonder what artist was the first to use photos in his work? Of course it's hard to say for sure, but a likely candidate would be Gaspar-Felix Tournachon. You don't want to know how to pronounce that because he went by the name Nadar (pronounced Na-DAR) most of his life. He was born in 1820, and inasmuch as photography, for all intents and purposes, took its bow about 1840, his use of it around 1850 in doing a series of 270 caricatures of famous Parisians certainly puts him on or near the ground floor as the new medium took off (at least insofar as art is concerned). Nadar published his drawings in a magazine called Pantheon, which was so popular he put out a second edition the following year.

So fascinated was Nadar by the potentialities of this new medium he decided to give up drawing and let the camera do the work for him. In 1854, he opened a photo studio specializing in portraits using the Collodion wet plate process. (Yes, the glass photographic plate was put into the back of the camera wet.) Because of the limited amount of natural light his makeshift studio afforded, he tended toward a very high-contrast style, using a single light source on one side of the face, allowing the range of flesh tones to run from white, through all the shades of gray, to black. It was not only very dramatic, but allowed for an impressive degree of modeling of the various facial planes (as can be seen in the self-portraits, top left). Nadar was so successful that by 1860, he was able to move to a building specially designed as a photography studio/gallery. It was there that many of the first Impressionist art exhibits were held (below, left).

Nadar's Paris Studio-Gallery,

Nadar Elevating the Photograph to
High Art, 1863, Honore Daumier
Nadar was an odd sort. He was a swarthy, heavy, bearded, bear of a man, drawn to social, literary, and artistic events; ironic, sharply observant, and intensely critical. He was an adventurous showman, pioneering the use of hot-air balloons to take aerial photos of Paris (below, left). And, apparently not satisfied with hot-air balloons, he even went so far as to try building a steam-powered helicopter. Perhaps as a result of having struggled for several years with inadequate natural light, Nadar was among the first photographers to welcome the use of electric, artificial light in shooting his subjects. He demonstrated in some rather bizarre ways the usefulness of his primitive artificial light sources. Going from aerial photography, he took his lights and cameras to subterranean locales (below, right). If not waking the dead in the catacombs of Rome, he no doubt startled the rats a little when he shot photos in the sewers of Paris.
As the Daumier cartoon (above, right)
 proclaims, Nadar took photography to new
heights, but also to new depths, revealing
a Paris few (human) Parisians had ever seen
before (ca. 1900).

Aerial View of Paris, 1868,
Nadar, featuring the Arc de Triomphe

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