The Great Nadar and Other Legendary Portrait Photographers

Sarah Bernhardt in 1864, Portrait by Nadar: CC/Wikipedia

Some portrait photographers strive to disappear behind their cameras; to efface themselves so completely their subjects forget all about them, and, by extension, forget they are being photographed. Then there are those who lead lives just as outsized, colorful, and noteworthy as their subjects, so that it is unclear who actually is the true object of fascination – the person in front of the camera, or the one behind it. Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, photographed Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Edouard Manet, and Alexandre Dumas – and led a life to rival any of these great writers and artists.

  • The cover of the book The Great Nadar

    The Great Nadar

    The Man Behind the Camera

    As biographer Adam Begley writes in his new book The Great Nadar, in Paris in the late 19th century, Nadar was “a celebrity, renowned not only for his portraits of eminent contemporaries, but also for his caricatures, his writings, his radical politics, and his daredevil exploits as a balloonist.” Those exploits inspired the writer Jules Verne to memorialize one fateful trip in his novel From the Earth to the Moon; Nadar didn’t always stick his landings, but he did take the first aerial photographs from the basket of his craft. His most impressive feat, however, remains his photographs, which capture, Begley writes, “an intimate and compelling psychological likeness.” For more stories of larger-than-life portrait photographers, check out these memoirs and biographies.

  • The cover of the book A Photographer's Life

    A Photographer's Life


    She put Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, hung a swan around Leonardo diCaprio’s neck, and convinced John Lennon to wrap his naked body around Yoko Ono. Annie Leibovitz’s celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair and other publications defined celebrity at the turn of the 21st century – but stars were just one of her many interests. Some of Leibovitz’s most haunting images are those of her longtime partner, Susan Sontag, whose death from cancer she chronicled with her camera. In this book of photographs and personal recollections, Leibovitz reveals the evolution of her career, and discusses the choices she made both with her camera and with her life.

  • The cover of the book Walker's Way

    Walker's Way

    My Years with Walker Evans

    It is impossible to think about the Great Depression without conjuring an image made by Walker Evans. Whether the sharecropper wife staring with grim-faced resignation or the barefoot family standing on the front porch of their shack, the people Evans photographed for the Farm Security Administration came to define the experience of the rural desperate and destitute in the 1930s. More than twenty years later, he married Isabelle Storey, at which time he was a celebrated photographer with many famous friends. In this memoir, Storey recalls the man and the artist, and describes the way Walker’s unique vision helped shaped America’s image of itself.

  • The cover of the book The Unexpurgated Beaton

    The Unexpurgated Beaton

    The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980

    If you were anyone in Britain in the 1960s, you had your photograph taken by Cecil Beaton. And if you were really someone, you might turn up in one of his diaries. Many volumes were published during the fashion photographer, portraitist, and stage designer’s lifetime, but with the mean parts taken out, so as not to hurt feelings. Here they’re put back in, including details of an affair with Greta Garbo and some nasty assessments of Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

  • The cover of the book Diane Arbus: Revelations

    Diane Arbus: Revelations

    In her short life, Diane Arbus changed the face of photography. Whether documenting circus freaks, bored suburbanites, society matrons, or a giant at home with his tiny-seeming parents, Arbus revealed the beauty in the grotesque, and the flaws in the glamorous. In this book, her notebooks, grant applications, letters, and other writings, combined with photographs and an afterward by her daughter Doon, form an autobiography of the visual secret sharer.