Fotograf Magazine

Nadar’s Literary Humoresques

In 2018, NAMU (the Publishing House of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) published one of Nadar’s kaleidoscopic memoir publications – When I Was a Photographer – supplemented with an expert afterword written by Tomáš Dvořák. The book is a selection of fourteen anecdotal fragments from nineteenth century Parisian social, cultural, and political life, which Nadar recorded from his position as a coparticipant in the events. They provide an interesting and humorous view of Nadar (born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910), in his genuine nature as an artist, photographer, portraitist and caricaturist as well as a pioneer in lighter-than-air aviation and balloon photography, so, in essence, as a bohemian on the one side, but on the other, they present a view of him as a businessman, journalist, and writer who uses the authentic, slightly sensationalist jargon of his era.

Here, set against the background of individual stories of social changes, photography plays the role of observer and waits for just the right moment to freeze time, movement, and situation. It records the broad spectrum of changes in human society as reflected in the new political and economic dimensions of power in comparison to the power of the photographic image itself. In Nadar’s stories, the medium of photography is subliminally brought into the present, when, through diverse human discourse and situations, both humorously and seriously, it conveys place and time, and it monitors, follows, shows, indicates, controls, guards, documents, and convinces. Tomáš Dvořák has supplemented these narratives with his essay on Nadar’s importance, in which he draws attention to Nadar’s business acumen as well as to his personal critical ingenuity with regard to public and social cultural life. Much can be learned from the selection of Nadar’s clientele from the Parisian cultural elite whom he chose to portray. His caricatures of prominent individuals were published in the prestigious magazine Journal pour rire until 1852, at which time the publication was banned by the censorship imposed by Napoleon III. As a result, Nadar lost a large part of his income. In order to compensate for his lost profits, Nadar compiled a series of caricatures under the title of Pantheon, which was first published in 1854. He wanted to include a number of the caricatures he had made previously so, in order to speed up his work, he made use of portrait photography. The resulting process was much faster. The portrayed included writers, playwrights, actors, artists, and musicians (including the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Honoré Daumier, Sarah Bernhardt, and Hector Berlioz to name but a few) as a reflection of moral intelligence, and also saying something about Nadar’s personal priorities with regard to social typologies and hierarchies. As compared to the photographic portraits and caricatures, Nadar’s purposefully chosen literary form expands the full range of the social spectrum found in daily life even more. It depicts down to the smallest detail the nature and behaviour of specific persons as well as their social position. It is as if, below the line, the photographs take on the role of the protagonists of the stories after all, and through the power and strength of the image, through the way it psychologises expressions, they convince, capture, prove, promote, and show how society thinks and behaves. Nadar’s awareness of how powerful a photographic image can be in its influence and demonstrativeness.


Dvořák, Tomáš (ed). NADAR. Když jsem byl fotografem (When I Was a Photographer). Prague: Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (NAMU), 2018. ISBN 978-80-7331-481-1.

Pavlína Vogelová