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Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.

Théophile Gautier

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)
(French, 1820–1910)

1855. Salted paper print, 10 1/16 x 8 3/4" (25.6 x 22.2 cm)

No one explored notions of celebrity and portraiture more exhaustively during the nineteenth century than French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar. Not only a photographer, but also a printmaker, cartoonist, and hot air balloonist, he moved in bohemian circles and was friends with many of France’s most prominent cultural figures. He opened his Paris photographic studio in 1854, and also ran a thriving business making small cartes de visite for his clients, most of them members of the Parisian elite.

Nadar rejected the formal poses that were then the norm in celebrity portraits, instead making photographs that conveyed the romantic and free artistic spirit of his subjects, and a sense of the photographer’s intimacy with them. In this portrait, French writer and critic Théophile Gautier’s bohemian appearance reinforces his image as an iconoclast who did not adhere to social norms. This and Nadar’s other portraits exemplify how celebrated and prominent figures used photographic portraiture to construct and establish their public personas early in the history of the medium.

Daniel, Malcolm. "Nadar (1820–1910)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A term applied to many natural and synthetic materials with different forms, properties, and appearances that are malleable and can be molded into different shapes or objects.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

The way a figure is positioned.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

1. A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building; 2. A person who poses for an artist.

Small handheld photographic cards, first popularized in the 1850s. Inexpensive and mass-produced, these cards depicted individual or celebrity portraits, and were popularly traded or collected in albums.

A Most Favorable Resemblance
Nadar prided himself on his ability to draw out the essence of his subjects in his portraits of them. He once said of his technique, “It’s the swift tact that puts you in communion with the model, makes you size him up, grasp his habits and ideas in accordance with his character, and allows you to render, not an indifferent plastic reproduction that could be made by the lowliest laboratory worker, commonplace and accidental, but the resemblance that is most familiar and most favorable, the intimate resemblance.”1