It's not hard to come by good portrait photography these days. From the movie-like photographs of Annie Leibovitz's to the impressive close-ups of Platon to the somber images of Dan Winters, viewers are spoiled for choice when it comes to celebrity photographers. It was a different story some 200 years ago, when pioneering portrait photographer Félix Nadar took it upon himself to change the face of portrait photography with his unorthodox approach to the medium, effectively becoming the most famous celebrity photographer of the 19th century.
The name Gaspard-Félix Tournachon isn't very much known in photographic circles because he used the pseudonym Félix Nadar for his work. Later on in his career he became so successful as a photographer that he was simply known as the portraitist Nadar.
Nadar was also an avid balloonist, and it wasn't long before he combined his passion for photography and flying by attempting to take photos from his hot-air balloon. Indeed, Nadar is also famous for creating the first aerial photograph in 1858.
Aerial photography aside, why exactly was Nadar so famous in his day? And does his name still hold any relevance to modern portrait photography? To answer those questions, you'll have to understand the portrait photography industry of the 1800s. Back then, the photographic medium was still in its infancy, so the trend was largely dictated by the standards of 19th century portrait painting coupled with the limits of the early camera.
Even with these limitations, Nadar refused to follow the trend of having his work look the same as everybody else's. He experimented with different lenses and set-ups, being one of the first to go with close-ups instead of full-body shots. He also worked with artificial lights, something that wasn't so easy given the availability of portable electric lights at the time.
Towards the end of the 19th century, he became the go-to photographer for all of the celebrities of the time, from the stage and early film actress Sarah Bernhardt to the composers Claude Debussy and Franz Liszt to the engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel to science fiction writer Jules Verne, almost everyone who was someone in the 1800s eventually ended up sitting in front of his camera.
Celebrities went to Nadar not only because he made them look good, he also made them feel good. He had "the moral comprehension of his subject...which permitted the most familiar and favorable resemblance, the intimate one." Above all, he championed the photographic medium as an art form, refusing to bow down to purists that photography only served to advance science. For him, it was art, and it shows in his photographs.
There aren't a lot of websites dedicated to Félix Nadar and his photography, but the Wikimedia Commons has a nice collection of some of his works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has several images of Nadar's celebrity photographs of the 19th century, along with a description of each image. For hardcopies, try Nadar or Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York: Photography and Fame.