NADAR: A Renaissance Man Of Photography

By Bill Dobbins

Nadar pioneered aerial photography by shooting photos from balloons.

Photographers nowadays tend to specialize.  Most just do photography, some also direct films or commercials.  But that was not the case with Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (6 April 1820 – 20 March 1910), known by the pseudonym Nadar.  Nadar is considered by many to be the first great photographer and he was a man of many accomplishments – including caricaturist, journalist, novelist, and balloonist.

Nadar was born in April 1820 in Paris (though some sources state Lyon). His father was a printer and bookseller. Nadar initially studied medicine but after his father’s death he decided to quit his medical studies, primarily for economic reasons. He started working as a caricaturist and novelist for various newspapers. He became attached to the Parisian bohemian lifestyle, hanging out with artists, poets and writers. His friends picked a nickname for him: Tournadar, which later became Nadar.  His caricatures were published in Le Charivari for the first time in 1848. In 1849, he founded the Revue comique and the Petit journal pour rire.

Nadar began as a caricaturist before turning to photography

From work as a caricaturist, he moved on to photography, with a particular interest in portraits. He opened his photography studio in 1854 and another in 1860. Nadar photographed a wide range of personalities: politicians (Guizot, Proudhon), stage actors (Sarah Bernhardt), writers (Hugo, Baudelaire, Sand, Nerval, Gautier, Dumas), painters (Corot, Delacroix, Millet), and musicians (Liszt, Rossini, Offenbach, Verdi, Berlioz).[2]

Photo by Nadar.
Photo by Nadar.
Photo by Nadar.

Portrait photography at the time relied on sumptuous sets and record, but Nadar preferred natural daylight and despised useless accessories. In 1886, with his son Paul, he did what may be the first photo-report: an interview with the great scientist Chevreul (who was then 100 years old). It was published in Le Journal Illustré.[2]

In 1858 Nadar became the first person to take aerial photographs. This was done using the wet plate collodion process and since the plates had to be prepared and developed (a process that required a chemically neutral setting) while the basket was aloft, Nadar experienced imaging problems as gas escaped from his balloons. After Nadar invented a gas-proof cotton cover and draped it over his balloon baskets, he was able to capture stable images.[4] He also pioneered the use of artificial lighting in photography, working in the catacombs of Paris. He was the first person to photograph above ground with his balloons, as well as the first to photograph below ground, in the Parisian catacombs.

Jean Journet by Felix Nadar
Photo by Nadar.
Photo by Nadar.

In 1863, Nadar commissioned the prominent balloonist Eugène Godard to construct an enormous balloon, 60 metres (196 ft) high and with a capacity of 6,000 m3 (210,000 cu ft), and named Le Géant (The Giant),[5] thereby inspiring Jules Verne‘s Five Weeks in a BalloonLe Géant was badly damaged at the end of its second flight, leading Nadar to the conviction that heavier-than-air machines would be more successful. Later, “The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines” was established, with Nadar as president and Verne as secretary. Nadar was the inspiration for the character of Michael Ardan in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

 In April 1874, he lent his photo studio to a group of painters to present the first exhibition of the Impressionists. He photographed Victor Hugo on his death-bed in 1885. He is credited with having published (in 1886) the first photo-interview (of famous chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, then a centenarian), and also took erotic photographs. From 1895 until his return to Paris in 1909, the Nadar photo studio was in Marseilles.


Nadar died in 1910, aged 89. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

Bill Dobbins and model large (1 of 1)
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
Shooting photos from a balloon using the wet plate process was a serious challenge. Photo by Nadar.


Aerial photo by Nadar.
Nadar was the first really famous photographer. He was a caricaturist, photographer and known for shooting aerial photos from balloons.