Between 1850 and 1860 there was a flourishment of photographic portrait ateliers in Europe and in America. The invention by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889) of the carte de visite, consisting on printing 10 equal photographs on a single sheet, quickly spread around the world and along with the fact that production cost of these pictures was inexpensive, soon it was considered very fashionable to have such visiting cards.
Such a huge demand of the public for portraits lured legions of opportunistic characters into photography, and alongside with well-known and established photographers with impressive studios, a plethora of back-street studios booming everywhere. Bill Jay mentions in his essay “Cheap portrait in Low Dens” that “it was estimated that there were 250 such back-street portait studios in London alone at the beginning of 1860s”. However, the attitudes towards the medium were quite different alongside. Most of the practitioners were enticed to portrait photography as a way of making easy money.
That was also the case of the French photographer Gaspard Félix Tournachon or Nadar as he was known after 1849. He was an eclectic man who worked as a journalist written for left-wing publication, being involved in political and subversive issues; latter he worked as caricaturist publish several drawing in the satiric press of Paris. In 1854, he published the Panthéon Nadar, a lithographed sheet of 300 caricatures of his Parisian literary contemporaries. He used photography as the basis to draw his caricatures, and soon later, he opened his own studio.
The picture I choose for this project is a portrait of a young Charles Baudelaire, possibly taken around 1855. The quality of the image is quite bad; in fact, there are some other portraits of the poet with better quality. The first thing I noticed in this portrait is the pose of the subject, that is radical different of the dominant style in portrait photography at that time, tended to use props and exotic decoration where the sitter posed according to admitted standards and conventions. Baudelaire looks relaxed and natural; there is not feeling of tension or being keeping a forced pose. His gaze shows determination and character; Nadar used to rub-shoulders with artist who belong to the French intelligentsia, people who were aware of their own singularity, knowing that they belong to a minority; He is not portraying ordinary people, the personality of the subjects is so strong, that they fill all the scene without adding any props or additional elements.
The picture of Baudelaire proves this point; the scene is composed only with the subject against a plain background and a harsh light that enters from the right side of the picture, creating a strong contrast. There is no need to use decorative elements; the only presence of Baudelaire is enough. The light helps to profile the outline of the poet, creating a chiaroscuro that strength his expression. This technique has a certain similarity with those portraits taken latter by Paul Strand where he put the subject in front of an open door or window, creating an area of contrast that create a dynamic force in the portrait.
It is interesting the idea exposed by Ian Fleming that relates the approach of Nadar to the portraiture to the eighteenth century tradition of French portraiture, in particular represented by Manet and Degas, capturing the freshness of the instantaneity. The stiffness of portrait photography was in part the consequence of the social decorum of those years that imposed the use of accepted poses, and technical limitations in early photography that required long exposures; And that perhaps was the cause of Baudelaire, in 1858, criticized the artistic ambitions of photography, relegating it to the role of memory and scientific evidence recorder.
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A concise history. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Jay, B. (1994) Occam’s razor: An outside-in view of contemporary photography. Germany: Nazraeli Press.
Coria, J. (2013) NADAR: UN FOTÓGRAFO DE ALTOS VUELOS. Available at: http://javiercoria.blogspot.com.es/2013/07/nadar-un-fotografo-de-altos-vuelos.html (Accessed: 18 September 2016).
Fattouh-Malvaud, N. Baudelaire photographié par Nadar, Available at: https://www.histoire-image.org/etudes/baudelaire-photographie-nadar (Accessed: 18 September 2016).
Baudelaire, C. (1964) The painter of modern life and other essays. London: Phaidon Press.
Heilbrun, F. Nadar and the Art of Portrait Photography. Met Publications.