Nadar

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Nadar was a writer, a caricaturist, a balloonist, a part-time political activist, a photographer, and a friend of the painters, writers, and intellectuals in Paris during the time of Napoleon III. He is remembered as a photographer, for the portraits that he made of his great contemporaries.

It was only proper that Nadar should have considered painters his friends, since he learned so much and borrowed so freely from their traditions. He did this with great understanding and skill; the hand and coat front of Baron Taylor, right, might have been admired by Ingres himself. On the other hand, no painter would have recorded Taylor’s magnificently dyspeptic face with the unremitting truthfulness of Nadar’s photograph. Nadar understood that the fidelity of photography was a mixed blessing, and preferred not to make portraits of women, since the results were “too true to nature to please the sitters, even the most beautiful.”

The Museum’s print of the Taylor portrait is a woodburytype, a kind of print in which the image is formed by ink that has been transferred from a lead intaglio plate. Unlike modern systems of photomechanical reproduction, the woodburytype did not use a halftone screen, and thus achieved a truly continuous scale of gray values. The process produced prints of great beauty and exceptional permanence, and was practical for making editions of several hundred prints from a single plate. Unhappily, the technique was abandoned after the introduction of the halftone reproduction in the late nineteenth century.

In 1874, when Nadar’s best work as a photographer was behind him, he earned a footnote in the art history texts by lending (or perhaps renting) his studio to a group of dissident painters for an independent exhibition. The show was generally conceded to be a failure. Renoir, one of the group said, “The only thing we got out of it was the label ‘Impressionism,’ a name I loathe.”

from “Looking at Photographs” by John Szarkowski

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