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The Nadars, a photographic legend

III. Documentary Uses of Photography

The Nadars


III. Documentary Uses of Photography

The Nadars stand out for the diversity of their photographic activities. As specialists in portraiture, they contributed to developing the use of photography in medicine, physiognomy, anthropology, agriculture, map-making, and military strategy. Those projects led them into new practices, where substance and technique mattered more than style or artistic merit, as the goal was to produce purely descriptive images whose criteria are based on the objectivity and authenticity of the observational sciences. The necessary distance from the subject and compositional clarity favoring head-on, centered framing, sharp focus and precise details over the entire surface of the image are the esthetic characteristics of the “documentary” approach that photographers would strive for in the late 19th-century.

Animal Photography

Self-portrait with his cat in the office of the studio on Rue d’Anjou, Paul Nadar, around 1894
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Wienerwalf cow, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
The empathy, generosity, and curiosity about others that all of the Nadars shared included animals as well. The family loved animals, and lived with lots of different ones. They protected, defended and saved them. They took in lost dogs; Ernestine stuffed uneaten bread from restaurant tables into her pocket in case she ran into a hungry bird, and poured sugar out to feed ants. The garden of the Rue Saint Lazare studio was home to dogs, donkeys, peacocks and little Paul’s huge Labrador, which wandered around the studio on Boulevard des Capucines. The Hermitage in Sénart had other dogs, birds and a donkey called Biribi. The only exception: unlike Paul, Félix didn’t care for cats. Otherwise, Félix Nadar’s love for animals was so strong that he was an active member of the French Society for the Protection of Animals. In 1905, he even produced a book with 15 short scenes, Misères du cheval (The Misery of Horses), denouncing the cruel treatments inflicted on draft horses in Paris, for the satirical weekly L’Assiette au beurre.
What effect did that have on their photography? Félix briefly attempted to specialize in equestrian photography: in the fall of 1861, in partnership with Delton, he opened an annex on Avenue de la Faisanderie. He had also done at least two portraits of horses in the courtyard of his first studio. His love of animals shows up more in his self-portraits and writing, particularly in selected anecdotes from his memoirs.
Adrien made a real specialty out of animal photography. From 1855 to 1860, he received numerous commissions from farm shows and agricultural fairs in Paris and a few provincial towns: horses, cattle, sheep, goats. Insofar as France was still essentially an agricultural country at that time, that kind of photography took on an importance that is hard to grasp in our day: famous amateurs, like Count Aguado, and professionals who specialized in providing documentation for artists, like Braun, Quinet and Famin, were all renowned for their work in the animal genre.
Adrien produced a lush and varied body of work, particularly the lovely series he did at the World’s Agricultural Fair of 1856 (96 images) and his Prize-Winning Horse and Donkey Breeds at the 1855 Fair (45 images).
The agricultural fairs of 1855 and 1856 had a clearly stated purpose: promoting the modernization of French agriculture, which was seen as being backward, taking English agro-industry as a role model. Cattle breeding was the most obvious example of France’s overall backwardness. At the time, French oxen were used essentially as draft animals, and for plowing. Milk and meat production were still secondary. But beef consumption in Paris doubled between 1840 and 1880, and English cows of the Durham breed (now more commonly known as shorthorns), better suited to that purpose, were the stars of the Fair. Adrien Tournachon, whose assignment was to “present the best of the Fair,” contributed to promoting them.
Even in what could seem like a compulsory exercise, his talent shines through: his pictures display real inspiration in how the subjects – both human and animal – are arranged. He varies them from one “model” to the next, sometimes using very bright light, others leaning towards the shadowy, and varies the background color depending on the animal’s coat. In addition, he goes along with the unexpected, taking advantage of unplanned movements or allowing intruders in his line of vision to stay in the shot. Thanks to faster collodion negatives – which were already working miracles in terms of spontaneity in human portraiture – he was able to do animal photography that was far more interesting than its lithographic equivalent.
The stallion Surcouff, Adrien Tournachon, 1860
Born in 1851. Sire, Gobillard, half-bred; Breton mare, 1st Prize for Breton breed for light-draft-horse stallions © BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
The stallion Tonneau, Adrien Tournachon, 1860
Born in 1851. Sire and mare of the Boulonnais breed, honorable mention for Boulonnais breed draft-horse stallions
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
White Charolais bull, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
25 months old, bred by Mr. L. Massé, in La Guerche (Cher). 3rd prize in the Charolais category
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Black Pinzgau bull, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
30 months old, bred by Mr. Johann Buchner, in Caprun-ober-Pinzgau. 1st prize in Pinzgau and Montafon breeds
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Bull seen from behind, focus on the rump, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Bernese-Moravian cow, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
6 years and 1 month old, bred by the Prince of Liechtenstein, Vienne (Austria). 1st prize in the Bohemian and Moravian breeds and sub-breeds
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Bernese-Moravian cow, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
20 months old, bred by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Towneley, in Towneley Hall, Lancashire (England). 1st Prize in the Durham category, age 1 to 2 years old
© BnF, département des Estampes et de la Photographie
48-month-old Angus bull, presented by M. William Mac-Combie, at Tilly four, near Aberdeen, Adrien Tournachon, between 1850 and 1860
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department
Salers cow with her calf, Adrien Tournachon, 1856
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department

Medical Photography

The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy

Félix Nadar had always been drawn to the field of medicine. It was the only subject he studied in college, albeit briefly, as he was obliged to leave school in 1838 in order to earn a living. Indeed, his short-story collection, When I Was a Student, published in 1856, features professors of medicine. Following in Adrien’s footsteps, he would collaborate with some well-known doctors. The Tournachon brothers may not have been the first medical photographers, but the extremely high quality of their work – intertwining art, science and innovation – really stands out.
Adrien was the first to get involved with scientific illustration. In 1856, Dr. Duchenne de Boulogne, enlisted him to illustrate his book, Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions (The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy, or the Electro-Physiological Analysis of the Expression of Passions). He wanted to work with the artist who had been awarded a medal at the 1855 World’s Fair for his series of Pierrot’s facial expressions interpreted by Deburau. Duchenne had been working since the 1830s on treating certain diseases with electricity. He wanted to show that it was possible to recreate the expressions corresponding to certain sentiments by getting the facial muscles to contract thanks to superficial electrification, which he handled very nimbly. He needed a photographer to preserve the extraordinary results he had achieved to great acclaim during public demonstrations.
He also wanted to help young artists, students of the Beaux Arts, to portray the diversity of facial expressions properly. Enlargements of the photographs he bequeathed to the School of Beaux Arts were used by Professor Mathias Duval from 1874. The specific details of his collaboration with Adrien Tournachon, who shot and signed some of the prints, are not known; but Duchenne names him in the book’s acknowledgements.
The choice of Duchenne’s favorite model, a Parisian cobbler whose strange features are somewhat surprising, was in no way random. Stricken with facial anesthesia, his expressions were generated exclusively by the electrical stimulations, which gave him almost no pain. The guarantee was reinforced by the fact that the old man, “with a gentle and inoffensive character (…) has too little intelligent or is too unimpressionable to render by himself the expressions I reproduce on his face.” (p. 8) Duchenne explains his choice thus: “I could have chosen, as artists generally do, a model whose physiognomy harmonized with this or that facial expression. By renouncing those advantages, I deprived myself of a powerful tool for increasing my experience’s attraction; […] I simply wanted to demonstrate that, in the absence of beautiful features, and despite physical flaws, any human face can become morally beautiful through the faithful portrayal of the soul’s emotions.” (p. 7) When questioned later, the model confessed to having above all had “some trouble in keeping myself from laughing.”
Galvanization of the frontalis muscle, by the author, at B. Baillière et fils (Paris), 1862
Album of pathological photographs, complementary to the book called Localized Electrification", pub’d. by B. Baillière and Sons (Paris), frontispice
© BnF, rare book STORAGE
The thought muscle, At Vve J. Renouard (Paris), 1862
The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy, or the Electro-Physiological Analysis of the Expression of Passions pub’d. by Vve. J. Renouard (Paris), figure 14
© BnF, rare book STORAGE
Anatomical preparation and portraits, At Vve J. Renouard (Paris), 1862
The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy, or the Electro-Physiological Analysis of the Expression of Passions pub’d. by Vve. J. Renouard (Paris), figure 6
© BnF, rare book STORAGE

Photography as Evidence

Photographic theory in the 19th century thought of photographic images as evidence, and the Nadars’ production was also intended to bear witness, or even to convince. In 1899, when Félix Nadar used his camera to document the damage to his studio in Marseille caused by the construction of the building next door, the point was clearly to provide evidence to the insurance companies. The series portrays the damage done to his premises, and includes outdoor views of both buildings, from different angles, in order to make the cause of the problem clear.
Paul Nadar, a pioneer of instant photography, soon realized the advantages procured by the immediacy of this new process and the impact it could have on presenting the news in the press. […] In May, 1887, he went to the site of the Opéra Comique to take photographs of the damage wrought by the fire there, and offered his snapshots to the Figaro – which did not see fit to publish them with the long articles about the fire in their May 26 edition, or in the following days. His photo-reportages covered the commemorative ceremony for the victims of the Opéra Comique fire, and the Romanov’s arrival in Paris in 1896, but at the time, photography’s use in the illustrated press remained quite circumscribed.
The Opéra-Comique House fire, seen from the stage, Félix Nadar, May 1887
© French Photography Society
The Opéra-Comique House fire, from the walk-ons dressing room, Félix Nadar, may 1887
© French Photography Society
The Opéra-Comique House fire, the entrance hall, Félix Nadar, may 1887
© French Photography Society
The Opéra-Comique House fire, the façade, Félix Nadar, may 1887
© BnF, Prints and Photographs Department