His name was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon but he is better known by his pseudonym, Nadar and he was a legend in his own lifetime. Nadar was orphaned by his father in his early youth and as a teenager he had to take over the duties of the head of the family and take on the care of his mother and younger brother Adrien. He quit his medical studies and began working for the Parisian dailies where he discovered his greatest talents. The would-be medic quickly turned out to be a great illustrator and a caricaturist. Soon the bohemians of Paris would gather round this brilliant young writer and artist. He discovered also that he had a flair for invention and in 1861 he patented a device that would change his life.
It was an innovation of photography, a way to use burnt magnesia to take photos using artificial lighting.
Nadar used his idea in a unique way – he obtained permission to photograph for the very first time the mysterious underground world of the Catacombs of Paris.
The Catacombs were quarries from which stone was mined since Roman times to build monuments in Paris.
From the 18th century cemeteries became a health hazard for the citizens of Paris and soon were forbidden in the city limits. The quarries would house the remains of millions of Parisians, their bones being transported from the cemeteries above. At first this solved the problem of unsafe sanitary conditions in the city but ultimately the resulting Catacombs became a curiosity and visitor attraction. In Nadar’s times, interest in the Catacombs became a mystery worthy of discovery.
Nadar used his new invention, magnesia to illuminate the darkness in the Catacombs, to take the very first photographic images of the mysterious underground city.
As you can see in his pictures, his models in the Catacombs had no problem sitting still and were ever ready to have their time to shine!
The result was a photo album and numerous postcards that popularized the dark recesses of Paris.